How Do We Turn Immigrants Into Citizens? The emotional debate is about the deportation of illegal immigrants. But we shoud think about how we help them to become Americans

WASHINGTON – Sadly, in the midst of so many strident polemics about what should be done regarding millions of illegal immigrants now here in the US (between 11 and 12 million, according to most estimates), we have not considered a central issue: “What does it take to become an American citizen?” Unfortunately, the heated national conversation focused only on whether illegal immigrants should be rounded up and sent away, or not.

Immigrants with no status?

Well, if we do not send them away, (massive deportation is impossible), then what? They will just “stay” here, millions of people living in America without a clear status and therefore, almost by definition, no stake and no say on any matter affecting the country they live in? Is this healthy? And, even if we assume a fast track to residency and citizenship, how do we help all of them to understand and embrace the American values and institutions without which –if you think about it– there is no America?

America is a representative democracy whose vitality is dependent on a vibrant civic culture honestly and sincerely embraced by most of its citizens. To have in our midst more than 11 million people who are here, but without any feeling of real belonging, is not healthy.

The story of some Mexican immigrants

In a NYT op-ed, (How Mexicans became Americans, January 18, 2015), Journalist Sam Quinones provided an interesting picture of how large numbers of Mexican immigrants living in small communities in Southern California, after the de facto amnesty provided by the immigration law of 1986, little by little came to believe that they were not just immigrant workers but real Americans. Quinones gives us a good story of successful integration, even though he also  describes many of the obstacles that had to be overcome.

We have no induction process

While this is a good story, what we surmise from it is that here in America we have no “induction process” aimed at helping immigrants to become citizens. In the past, it was a given that all immigrants (mostly from Europe) who landed in America had made a conscious decision to leave their country of origin for good. They had bought a one way ticket to America. They had severed their ties. Which is to say that they had come to America with the clear aspiration to become Americans.

The melting pot…

Therefore, once in America, most of them did their best to become citizens. They learnt English and tried to fit in. While the metaphor of America as “the melting pot” that as a matter of course easily turned Germans, Irish, Poles, Italians, Russians and Greeks into cheerful and enthusiastic citizens may not be totally accurate, for the most part it is. The record indicates that the larger American society, inspired by the civic culture that supports our republican institutions, managed to assimilate millions of diverse new comers.

…No longer exists

But the “melting pot” model does not apply any more. Today we have millions of illegal immigrants who came to America from nearby Mexico or Central America, not because they want to settle here and become Americans, but only because America seems to offer better economic opportunities. Please note that there is a critical distinction between “economic immigrants” who think of their country of origin as their real home, and “would-be citizens” who want assimilation.

However, because of their murky status, these illegal immigrants cannot freely come and go. Most of them, once they get here, have to stay. Crossing the border is too risky. Some of them may want to stay for good, aspiring to become Americans. Some do not.

Guest workers program

Well, any sensible immigration reform plan should include a well designed guest workers visa programs. This would provide a choice to millions of people. If what they want is just the opportunity to work in America, so be it. Assuming that the US job market needs additional workers, (it does, especially in the agriculture sector), then guest workers visa programs should create a manageable process that will match employers and would be foreign workers.

Civic education

For all the others that want to become Americans we need to create civic education (and more) programs that will help them in their transition from immigrants to citizens. As the story told by Quinones in his NYT piece clearly indicates, these days assimilation does not take place as a matter of course. In some of the Mexican communities in Southern California, after a great deal of bad experiences, finally there was a transformation from disorganized immigrants to citizens animated by a genuine civic culture. But this successful change cannot be taken for granted.

Real citizens

The larger American society should devise ways to help the immigrants who really want to become citizens. And this goes way beyond the pro-forma civics test that would-be citizens have to pass. Truly embracing American values takes a lot more effort than learning how many Senators sit in the US Senate. We cannot leave this crucial education process to chance.

It is in America’s interest that all those who are here to stay truly embrace our values.

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