As lawmakers begin to discuss major changes in the structure and mission of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), it becomes increasingly evident that America has a civic-assimilation problem. Briefly put, a sizeable number of new immigrants and their children may be bettering themselves economically and speaking English but not embracing American identity and patriotism. Thus, the Washington Post
interviewed a middle-class Muslim American immigrant family from New Jersey and reported that, "For Kahr and her husband — taxpayers, registered voters, law-abiding citizens — assimilation is not a goal."
The Post article stated that Kahr (who came to the U.S. from Syria when she was twelve, 17 years ago) would soon graduate from Seton Hall law school. However, this well-educated woman opposes America's war efforts against the Taliban in Afghanistan and declares that "throughout history" Muslims "will always be separate." Empirical evidence suggests that Kahr's views are not unique. In what Islamic expert Daniel Pipes has described as "perhaps the most sophisticated study to date of Muslims in the United States" ( Competing Visions of Islam in the United States: A Study of Los Angeles)
, an Iranian doctoral student at Harvard, Kambiz Ghaneabassiri, found that 12 of 15 Muslim immigrants that he surveyed feel more allegiance to a foreign country than to the United States.
Nor is this ambivalence about American identity confined to Muslim immigrants and their children. The most comprehensive evidence we have on the patriotic assimilation of the children of immigrants is a longitudinal study by the Russell Sage Foundation. This study of 5,000 children of immigrants (mostly Mexican-American and Filipino-American teenagers) revealed that after four years of American high school, the students were 50 percent more likely to consider themselves "Mexicans" or "Filipinos," than "Mexican-Americans," or " Filipino-Americans, " or just plain "Americans." In other words, patriotic assimilation or self-identification with the American nation actually decreased (and decreased dramatically) after four years of studying in American schools.
In the past, patriotic assimilation succeeded, in no small part, because national leaders insisted unambiguously on the "Americanization" of newcomers to our shores. National Review's John J. Miller has described in The Unmaking of Americans: How Multiculturalism Has Undermined America's Assimilationist Ethic
how during the last great wave of immigration "Americanization" policies were institutionalized in both government and civil society and enthusiastically supported by American presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
If Americanization or patriotic assimilation is to succeed today, it must be institutionalized as it was in the past. There are current plans underway in Congress and the administration to separate the two main functions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (border enforcement and immigrant services) into either two different agencies or two autonomous divisions within the same agency. These initiatives to restructure the naturalization service provide an excellent vehicle to institutionalize patriotic assimilation as a national policy.
Why not make the agency or subagency that deals with "immigrant services" an explicit "Americanization" or civic-assimilation bureau? Why not clearly mandate that the mission of the naturalization bureau is the patriotic or civic assimilation of new immigrants into American liberal democracy? Civic assimilation, American style, is (as most of us agree) not based on adherence to particular ethnic customs, religious beliefs, cultural rituals, or culinary traditions, but on political loyalty to our democratic republic.
At the heart of citizenship naturalization is the "Oath of Renunciation and Allegiance" in which new citizens transfer full political allegiance (but obviously not all ties and affection) from their birth nations to the United States. The Oath of Allegiance is central to who we are as a people — a nation formed not by race, ethnicity, or religion, but by shared principles of freedom and justice and loyalty to our constitutional regime. It makes sense that new citizens should clearly understand the serious moral commitment they make in renouncing all prior political allegiances and swearing loyalty to the American democratic republic. Therefore, questions on the significance of the Oath of Allegiance should be incorporated into the history-government naturalization test that prospective citizens take.
Today's INS uses the language of commerce and business by describing immigrants as "customers" seeking "services." Tomorrow's new civic-assimilation agency should employ the language of country and nation. Treating immigrants, who hope to become American citizens, with real respect means seeing them as future fellow citizens (i.e. as "candidates for citizenship"), not as "customers" or "consumers" waiting for a "service" (naturalization) or a "product" (citizenship). Every American knows — or should know — that being a "candidate" for citizenship — for full and equal membership — in our democratic republic is a status of infinitely greater significance and dignity than being a "customer" waiting for a "service" or a "product."
The purpose of revising the mission of the naturalization service is not to prevent possibly insincere oath taking by some (as in the case of the New Jersey family referred to earlier) but to strengthen civic assimilation in general. Giving the government agency in charge of citizenship naturalization the explicit mission of "Americanization," "patriotic assimilation," or "civic assimilation" tells newcomers (and, equally important) influential sectors of civil society (e.g. native-born educators, foundation officials, etc.) that America's leaders are serious about integrating immigrants into our constitutional democracy and perpetuating what used to proudly be called "the American way of life."
Such a move would help put the "moral high ground" or "commanding heights" of the debate on immigration and assimilation in the hands of those who emphasize the unum
rather than the pluribus
, those who stress what unites us as Americans, rather than what divides us along ethnic, racial, and religious lines. Let us move forward with the new (which is also an old and continuing) mission of creating Americans out of the multitudes who continue to gather on our shores from the four corners of the earth.