Citizens not Immigrants

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by Paolo von Schirach

July 1, 2007

WASHINGTON – Fate had it that the legislative proposal to overhaul immigration rules, while providing a path to eventual citizenship to millions of illegals in the US was defeated just a few days before the Fourth of July. While this was clearly accidental, this coincidence gives us an opportunity to stress the deep connection between the ritual celebration of the Nation’s birth and any attempt, successful or not, aimed at determining who can be a lawful part of the Nation. As America’s future will be largely determined by the beliefs of its citizens, any discussion about citizenship should have included provisions aimed at establishing what kind of civic preparation is necessary to be a good citizen. But, while induction to citizenship was mentioned in the debate, this was just one out many issues, not a central concern, as it should have been.

Beyond cook outs and fireworks, the Fourth should be a reminder that this Republic is founded on principles, while the strength of these principles will determine its future viability. Remarkable success to date in the ability to preserve a republican government founded on the central notion of the sovereignty of the individual and on the duty of government to preserve individual liberties is no guarantee of future performance. Future successes will be determined by the preservation of the values that inspired the Founders, not as antiquarian curiosities but as vibrant, ever relevant principles to be upheld.

Given a society based not on ethnicity or religion but on values, the deep understanding and enthusiastic upholding of these principles counts, whether on the part of the existing populace or newcomers. Very important in the case of newcomers when they arrive in millions; thus altering the existing make-up. For the new citizens, the mandatory Oath of Allegiance to the Constitution, (taken freely, without mental reservation or purpose of evasion), should not be just a ritualized formula. It should be a pondered act, full of meaning. But this postulates a deep understanding of what this Constitution means. But neither proponents of reform (or amnesty, or whatever one’s preferred definition) nor its opponents have included in their arguments the fundamental issue of how we can ensure that the new citizens really understand and appreciate the true significance of the enterprise they are about to join.

In the past this crucial issue of how people come to acquire a true sense of belonging was dealt with mostly implicitly. The newcomers, largely of European origin, willfully threw themselves into the proverbial “melting pot” in order to be quickly homogenized. They were eager to embrace (or surrender to) American values and principles because this was the most obvious key to fast track assimilation –and fast assimilation was clearly the overriding goal of most immigrants.

But today the goal of rapid assimilation is not as self-evident as it used to be, especially for millions of immigrants from Latin America who (unlike their European predecessors) can and do maintain strong ties with their countries and cultures of origin. (Geographic proximity makes a considerable difference). Of course there is nothing wrong with these enduring connections with families and cultures made comparatively easier by cheap travel, accessible communications and hassle free remittance transfers. But to the extent that recent legal immigrants (and the millions of illegal residents whose fate was under discussion during the debate) look at living in the United States mostly through the narrow lenses of economic expediency, we have a real problem. America cannot be just a place of employment or an efficient market that rewards economically the resourceful.

While it is true that America is attractive because it is the land of opportunity (by that meaning clearly “economic opportunity”), it behooves the citizens –and Government as the official gate keeper– to make sure that whoever gets in (or those whose status maybe eventually legalized) truly grasp, believe and understand the values of a society that felt enough confidence in itself to devise a system of limited republican government. It is evident that the continued real viability of this form of government is predicated and the shared values of the citizens. So, with full respect of the individual freedoms of thought and expression, (guaranteed, as it were, by the Constitution), it is important that some basic values that constitute the ground rules of belonging are not only understood but voluntarily upheld by all.

For instance, in the Catholic religion, before young persons receive their first communion, the Church prescribes a preparation process, Catechism. This period of instruction should guarantee that the individuals receiving communion are fully aware of what the act includes, so that they will be fully cognizant of what is entailed; active participants and not just passive recipients.

As far as US citizenship is concerned, formally there is a recognition of the obligation on the part of the would-be entrant to prove knowledge of the Constitution that they are about to swear allegiance to. But, unfortunately, what is required does not exceed the depth and sophistication of game show or Trivial Pursuits skills. People have to be able to reply satisfactorily to quizzes about the number of representatives in the House and the like; but little or no effort is spent to make people aware of what citizenship in this Republic should entail. And nobody seems to mind about this gap.

As a result of this neglect, most issues related to citizenship –as the recent debate indicated– are confined to the alleged or calculated economic and social costs and benefits of immigration. The proponents of immigration put forward the historically unassailable argument that America is a land of immigrants that has been enriched over more than two centuries by the millions who came to plant their new roots here. So, according to this logic, the more the merrier. This generalization may be valid about the past. But it longer holds true, at least not in its entirety, about the present and the future, simply because immigration is not what it used to be. The state of mind of many new immigrants motivated by economic incentives only cannot be compared to that of the millions who came to improve their conditions but also to willingly acquire a new social and political identity. They did this by adopting not just the economic rules of the host country but its underlying values.

The immigration debate is dead, for the time being. But immigration continues. A republic legitimized and made vibrant only by the beliefs of its diverse citizens should make sure that those beliefs include a deep and reasoned understanding of the rights and obligations of citizenship.

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