Citizens not Immigrants

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.

The New Immigration or the End of the Melting Pot

by Paolo von Schirach

October 24, 2006

WASHINGTON – The current immigration debate, well meaning in some aspects, acrimonious in others, misses the qualitative changes and irreversible transformations to the US society brought about by the Latino immigration waves that have already changed America and are likely to change it even more in the years to come. 

The main irreversible transformation is that the old “melting pot” metaphor that, up to the 1960s, was a fair representation of the ability of the US to absorb and homogenize varied waves of immigrants, no longer applies. The US has ceased to be this Anglo-Saxon cultural blender that overtime digested, homogenized and integrated millions of other immigrants coming from different backgrounds, thereby “converting” them into true Americans.

The US is increasingly becoming Hispanic or Latino and Spanish speaking. In turn this qualitative change has led and will lead overtime to further transformations that will involve the core of what America is and what it thinks of itself.

The current immigration debate involving the Congress, the White House and now also state legislatures and local governments is mostly about recreating some control on what are in truth broken borders. It is also about providing some path to legalization of status to the many millions who de facto reside, live and work in the US. However, whatever the approach eventually chosen for the illegal aliens:  total or partial amnesty, fines, fast track to proper immigrant status or slow track, the reality is that massive deportation, theoretically possible under current law, is so unlikely that we can rule it out as a policy option. So, most likely, these millions are here to stay. 

Furthermore, even if, under the most optimistic scenario, the US manages to regain full control of its borders, thereby halting completely any future flow of illegal aliens into US territory, there will still be, in the decades to come a significant streaming of legal immigrants from South America. This flow, current and projected, coupled with the transformative impact of the many millions that are already here, legally or otherwise, has changed America for good. Because of the impact of these massive numbers, more changes away from the old Anglo-Saxon paradigm are inevitable in the years to come.

The qualitative difference between the Latino wave and previous large immigration waves is that most of the other immigrants ?in particular the Europeans– came to the US with an awareness, implicit or not, of having permanently severed their ties with their countries of origin. Sure, in many cases they would retain, at least the immigrant generation, a specific identity within the American ethnic mosaic. So, one could easily recognize Polish Americans as different from Italian Americans. But, by and large, those who came to the US and stayed here made a total commitment to become Americans and to place any residual tie or connection with their country of origin: linguistic, cultural or culinary, on a much lower tier.

In most cases the immigrants were unable or unwilling to preserve their linguistic identity and pass it on to the following generations. (Let us consider that many of them were semi literate or illiterate within their own cultures. Thus they did not have the tools to preserve cultural complexities that they did not fully master).

Therefore, the kaleidoscope of exotic names that dots the American landscape has value for the ethnographers and historians that can identify Norwegian, Irish, Greek or German origins. But the individuals themselves, with a few exceptions, usually can barely indicate that the great grand parents came from somewhere in Ireland or Germany. Mixed marriages among immigrants confused the picture even further. Italians intermarried with the Irish and their offspring later on with others. For a third or fourth generation American today who can easily be in part German, Swedish, Russian or Greek, it is almost impossible to determine a meaningful national origin and to have strong feelings about it.

The basic difference between these old waves of immigrants and the Latino waves rests in geography. The Europeans by and large came with one way third class tickets on overcrowded steamers. Once they had landed they were psychologically and materially committed to a fast track to integration in order to better their chances of improving their lot vis a vis the other Americans. In most cases, going back to the country of origin was out of the question. Emigration was final. Thus, embracing the new world, in all it aspects, including culture and values, was necessary to have a chance to succeed in it.

The Latinos as of many years come by bus, by car or by air. For the most part, even if we take out the many that cannot cross official borders for fear of apprehension, except for the very poor, they have the opportunity to travel back and forth at least occasionally, some rather frequently. To think of Polish peasants transplanted in Illinois at the turn of the last century taking an even occasional summer vacation to visit with relatives back in the village is preposterous except for the extremely successful few who had become really rich in America.

On top of that, nowadays, even for the relatively poor Latinos, phone contact with relatives back home is the norm rather than the exception, while the gigantic remittance flows from the US into Central and South America, indicate continues involvement with families and communities in the countries of origin.

And the retention of the Spanish language as the primary language is an indication as to the fact that these immigrants do not have the same urgency to integrate and in some fashion forget about their origins. They see no need for this.

The logic of large numbers in most cases may help in shaping attitudes. No need to learn English fast in communities where the Latino population is the majority. Indeed, at least in some communities in the US it is possible to have a perfectly normal life in terms of work and opportunity without any need to acquire real English fluency, something that certainly was not the case, even in the most ethnic states, even at the height of the European immigration waves. 

Certainly there have been many large ethnic islands within the United States and many immigrants could get by with little or no English. But the understanding of all was that English was the official language of the country and that all official transactions would be conducted in English. No equivalent at that time of the now ubiquitous “press 2 for Spanish”, in any telephone help line, let alone taking driver license tests in languages other than English or the notion of officially sanctioned bilingual education.

While we would like to think that becoming an American is not about ethnicity, as demonstrably there is no “American” ethnic group, but about the voluntary embracing a set of values, it is a fact that historically most immigrants have been economic immigrants, driven by need rather than ideals. However, and this is crucial, whether they liked it or not, the old immigrants were “forced” to buy into the prevailing Anglo-Saxon political culture and become soon homogenized Americans, thus quickly shedding their origins and embracing America.

When political leaders today affirm that the strength of America lies in the diverse backgrounds of its immigrant population, they should know that this diversity is in fact rather superficial. They know that they are referring to the descendants of those Italian, German, Russian and Greek immigrants who, while they may have retained traces of their distinctiveness, at this point are homogenized Americans. Kohl, Lantos, Giuliani, Voinovich, Kerry, Tenet, Dukakis and even thick accented Schwarzenegger, just to stay within the sphere of people involved in public policy, are all ethnic names. Yet, these “including the foreign born– are Americans with a capital A. But, ten years from now, will we say the same about the Mercado, Martinez, Lopez and Rodriguez who will be the mayors and eventually national leaders of America? The difference is that the Latinos did not have the same pressure to integrate and become homogenized.

The fundamental qualitative difference between old and new immigration is that the new economic immigrants of today, most of them from Latin America, appreciate the opportunity to have a better life in the USA. However, to the extent that they can easily maintain an active connection with their countries of origin, (something that those who came along with the previous immigration waves could not do), they do not seem to have the urgency to totally and quickly transform themselves into “Anglos”.

If, while preserving the old ties, they would voluntarily choose to embrace the values of their adopted country, this would be a genuine achievement of multiculturalism. But, realistically, most immigrants will not spend sleepless nights poring over the Federalist Papers and other tomes on the Constitution in order to critically understand its underlying values.

Without the perception that, in order to have a normal life, they need to let themselves be absorbed by the new society, most people will tend to their private affairs. They will be guided by the principles that they acquired in their formative years. And, in the case of these new waves of immigrants, we cannot rest assured as to the fact that those value systems and beliefs will be the same as those that are prevalent among other Americans, simply because their backgrounds are different and their socialization took place in a different context.

And herein lays the challenge. America has worked reasonably well so far because a recognizable political culture has been preserved over more than two hundred years through a process that caused total outsiders to become integrated into this mainstream in a relatively short time. The substantial recent inflow of millions of people from nearby Mexico, Central and South America who bring different values and who see neither the obligation nor the need to subscribe to this political culture will bring about substantial qualitative change. This change will provoke new debates about what is it that we mean by “being an American”.

True, the notion that all the descendants of the old European waves have an unflinching, clear understanding as to what are the American values that they theoretically subscribe to is ludicrous. Indeed, many do not. But, at least in general, they cannot look at alternatives that derive from other perspectives that coexist in their universe. However, the lukewarm feelings about the distinctiveness of America among many descendants of older immigrants, if anything, complicates the problem, as it does not present to the new immigrants a clear picture of the value system that they should absorb.

America is a rather unique country that cannot point to a strong ethnic, religious or cultural identity. The political culture and the assumption that all of those who joined in share it has been the glue that kept this complex machinery together. We have to face the fact that this glue may not be as strong a bonding agent as it used to be.

And we have to face this fact now, when, for the first time in our complex history, we have a large chunk of new immigrants who may very well live here but who are not pressed to truly join in. This does not automatically make them disloyal or dangerous. But it makes them different. Just like the previous waves, these are predominantly economic immigrants. But, unlike the immigrants of old, they did not and will not go through the cultural indoctrination, benign or forced, willfully accepted or suffered by millions of others before them.

They are different. Their large and growing numbers will affect the culture and the values of the broader society in which they live and eventually they will radically transform it, its value system and core beliefs. How this transformation will change us all is impossible to predict. But America will never be the same.