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The forgotten immigration priority: Making new Americans

By W. James Antle III
web posted August 15, 2005

Growing up less than thirty miles south of Boston, many of my friends and neighbors were conscious of their ethnicity and the "old country" from which their ancestors came. Though it would be remarkable today, back then it was not uncommon to hear Italian spoken in the streets. Driving through one predominantly Italian-American neighborhood, the yellow line painted down the middle of the street turned red, white and green – the colors of Italy's flag.

Nearly every house in that neighborhood, however, proudly flew the familiar red, white and blue of the U.S. flag. Their inhabitants were viscerally patriotic Americans active in town life. More than a few were veterans of the United States Armed Forces.

It's possible, and perhaps too easy, to conflate a natural residual affection for the homeland of one's forbears with the corrosive influence of multiculturalism and dual citizenship. Yet the reality of such persistent attachments and the difficulties they can create for assimilation are too often assumed away in discussions of immigration.

Assimilation is often casually invoked as the magic bullet that will solve all the problems brought about by continuous mass immigration. Indeed, the integration of newcomers through Americanization campaigns has been the key to this country's immigration successes. But today assimilation takes a back seat to other considerations in formulating immigration policy.

Writing in the August 15 issue of the Weekly Standard, Tamar Jacoby once again complained that our immigration system is too restrictive for our own economic good. But she argued that we are nearing a consensus on how to reshape policy.

Jacoby compared the two leading immigration-reform plans currently being debated in Congress. The bill introduced by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) contains somewhat stronger enforcement provisions than the legislation filed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). But the chief difference is that Cornyn-Kyl would require illegal immigrants to go home first in order to apply for temporary-worker status (though there are questions about the seriousness of the mandatory departure requirements); McCain-Kennedy would merely ask them to shell out a $1,000 fine to legalize their status and participate in a guest-worker program.

Notice that both bills completely ignore assimilation. They instead concentrate on the economic benefits that would accrue to illegal immigrants and their employers. But what about minting new American citizens? Isn't the absorption of immigrants into American culture and political norms at least as important a component of U.S. policy as whether business has access to cheap foreign labor?

Any program that offers a large-scale amnesty to illegal aliens or extends to them temporary-worker status creates a class of people – potentially greater than 11 million – separated from, rather than assimilated into, America. Instead of making new Americans, the policy of the U.S. government will be to encourage the presence of millions of people who see themselves as Mexicans, El Salvadorans and citizens of other foreign countries temporarily living in America for monetary gain.

Of course, many of these temporary workers would prove permanent. Large numbers would have U.S.-born children, making them practically non-deportable. Still more would overstay their work permits just like the nearly 40 percent of illegal immigrants who overstayed their visas. None would have much incentive for patriotic assimilation.

And assimilation does not occur by accident or even through an easy process. Americanization can be, as Norman Podhoretz described it in his autobiography, a "brutal bargain."

Hudson Institute senior fellow John Fonte described the problems with this approach in an open letter to Tamar Jacoby. "My principal objection is that you over-emphasize economics and deal only superficially with America's twin national interests in border security and patriotic assimilation," Fonte wrote. "Further, the economic points that you raise are themselves open to question."

Just as immigration policy must be tailored to the needs of the American people and not just those of prospective immigrants, it must also focus on cultural cohesion and national unity and not just the bottom line of those who benefit from low-skilled labor. The desire to support one's family is a universal characteristic among decent people in every country; it is not a sufficient criterion for being an American.

Americans, not indentured servants, are what U.S. immigration policy used to create. "Naturalized citizens of Mexican descent and their U.S. born children are not… 'Mexicans living abroad,' anymore than my parents, brother, and myself are 'Italians living abroad' or [the Claremont Institute's Local Liberty editor] Ken Masugi, and his relatives are Japanese living abroad,'" Fonte observed in his corrective to Jacoby. "American citizens of Mexican descent are Americans, pure and simple."

The U.S. immigration system must get back to making Americans. This doesn't mean that new Americans must reject their heritage anymore than my childhood neighbors of Italian descent did. But the persistence of old habits does show that Americanization must be a deliberate policy, not something left to chance.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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