Citizenship is a Privilege, Not a Right

Learn more about Joseph Kim.
Joseph Kim
Associate and Expert-in-Residence, Freedom and Democracy
George W. Bush Institute

Our history shows that welcoming others and respecting different opinions are two of the main engines that make this a free nation.

When I was 12, I was an orphan in North Korea and survived by begging on the streets. I was not alone. I met many homeless children who lost their parents to famine—like I did—or were abandoned. In those days, I dreamed of eating three meals a day. There was no time or energy to dream of anything else. All of us were just trying to survive.

I am one of the lucky ones, and my dreams changed.

In 2007, I came to the United States, where eating three meals became my daily routine. I was told by many that I no longer needed to dream of food and had the freedom to want for more. I suddenly had the opportunity to attain the American Dream.

I have greatly benefited from the generosity of this nation. And in March, I was once again reminded of this country’s kindness at a naturalization ceremony hosted at the George W. Bush Institute.

What I appreciate most about living in the United States is that I have the freedom to choose and pursue who I’d like to become. President George W. Bush once said, “No democracy pretends to be a tyranny. Most tyrannies pretend they are democracies.” Despite the North Korean regime’s record on human rights abuse, the official name of the regime is ironically the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. However, the distinction is significant. In a country like North Korea, you don’t get to choose who you’d like to become. The regime decides your place of residence, whether you can travel, and, most importantly, who you ought to be.

Both President and Mrs. Bush emphasized at the naturalization ceremony that rewarding hard work and respecting differences with dignity are American values and principles which draw people from around the world. This statement could not be more true to who I am. As a North Korean refugee, I had the opportunity to receive an education in the United States, and now I can give back to my community by working at the Bush Institute.

If President Bush had not signed the 2004 North Korean Human Rights Act, which allowed North Korean defectors like me to come to the United States as refugees, I would not have had the opportunity to experience the greatness of freedom.

I also realized two important facts from observing the ceremony. First, immigration is a huge part of the American experience, which makes the U.S. a great nation and a unique place. The welcoming nature toward immigrants is what enables the country to peacefully co-exist despite differences in beliefs and ways of life. This allows our country to thrive.  

Secondly, citizenship is a privilege, not a right. As President Bush mentioned, “citizens-to-be are known as ‘candidates.’” In other words, citizenship comes with responsibilities, and it’s a covenant between the state and each citizen. There is a duty to improve the state by active participation. As an immigrant and now citizen, I look forward to casting my ballot in the upcoming election and having my voice heard. I am not alone in these sentiments. Studies show from 1996 to 2012, there was a six percent increase with immigrant citizens or native-born children of immigrants registering to vote. Meanwhile, there was a six percent decrease with the rest of the population.

If we want to make America great, we must realize what made this nation great to begin with—immigrants. Our history shows that welcoming others and respecting different opinions are two of the main engines that make this a free nation.