August 11, 2004
by John Fonte
Browsing through my grandmother's citizenship textbook from the 1930s, I found Lesson 61 on the Americanization policies of Theodore Roosevelt:
[Roosevelt] loved America above all else and his last public message was a plea for the "complete Americanization" of our people in which he said: "…[if] the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming an American, and nothing but an American. There can be no divided allegiance here. We have room for but one soul (sic) loyalty and that is loyalty to the American people."
The textbook captured the spirit of Americanization--that immigrants are expected to assimilate patriotically and become loyal Americans. More than one hundred years earlier George Washington had written to John Adams that he envisioned immigrants "assimilated to our customs, measures, and laws," and because of this, Washington declared, native-born citizens and immigrants would "soon become one people."
This sentiment is roughly the view of the majority of Americans today, but clearly not the opinion of many American elites. As Samuel Huntington argues, elites in government, business, education, academia, and the media have for decades been actively involved in efforts to "deconstruct" the American nation and its traditional concepts of assimilation and citizenship.
Huntington explains in his new book, Who Are We?, that arguments over multiculturalism, bilingualism, ethnic and gender group preferences, dual citizenship, history standards, transnationalism--and immigration and assimilation--are all part of the same conflict over the nature of the American liberal democratic regime. He is right to maintain that a "deconstructionist coalition" challenges the core principles of the American nation on all fronts. At the end of the day, the deconstructionists would transform an American nation based on the principles of individual citizenship, equality of opportunity, and self-government within Constitutional limits, into a new form of regime built on ethnic, racial, and gender group rights with decision-making increasingly in the hands of unelected elites.
While Huntington provides the comprehensive macro view, Jan Golab examines a micro case study of the problem in his essay on the politics of Indian casinos. What is ultimately at stake is whether the traditional American regime will be transmitted to future generations intact or wholly transformed.
Clearly, all of this means that the issue of immigration/assimilation (and these two issues should always be considered as one) must be examined within the broader context of the leftist assault on traditional American political principles. To help clarify the problem, let us explore a series of assimilation-related issues that will soon confront both elite and popular opinion. These include initiatives to revise the oath of allegiance, design a new citizenship test, and, most significantly, legalize the status of illegal immigrants.
Implicit in Huntington's thesis is that just below the surface of the policy debate there exists unapologetic public support for vigorous Americanization policies that would explicitly promote the patriotic integration of immigrants into what was once called "the American way of life." Besides public support, there appears to be a bloc in Congress (a counter-elite within the elite) strongly interested in patriotic, as well as economic and linguistic, integration. Last year when the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) wanted to simplify the citizenship oath, some members of Congress immediately protested, and the USCIS pulled back. Worried that the traditional oath (in which new citizens promise to "renounce" their old allegiances and "bear arms" on behalf of the United States) will be weakened, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Congressman Jim Ryun (R-KS) have introduced legislation to codify it into law.
In addition, it appears that the forces of patriotic renewal are being heard in discussions over the development of a new citizenship test. The USCIS plans to revise the history/government and language portions, with the goal of making them fairer and more meaningful. Advocates of patriotic integration in veterans groups, think tanks, and Congress make the following arguments:
They declare that we must start with first principles by asking: What is the purpose of the history/government citizenship test?
Then they point out that the law states that applicants for citizenship must have: (1) "a knowledge and understanding of the history, and of the principles and form of government of the United States" and (2) possess "good moral character, attachment to the principles of the Constitution, and be well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States."
This leads naturally to the conclusion that the purpose of the test as a whole is not merely to get new citizens to know certain facts, but also to be "attached" to the principles of the Constitution--evidence of the explicit normative purpose of naturalization.
The citizenship naturalization process should be a life-altering experience, a rite of passage, such as a wedding, graduation, first communion, or bar mitzvah, which fosters emotional attachment to our nation and strengthens patriotism. The revised test should also include the neglected subject of America's military history and heroes. Citizens, new and old, should be aware of the sacrifices made by America's soldiers to preserve our freedom and way of life. As the classicist Victor Davis Hanson has noted: "Without the military successes of Grant and Sherman against the Confederates, the slaves would not have been freed; and without the victories of Eisenhower and Patton over the Nazis, there would have been no civil rights movement."
At the end of the naturalization ceremony, the applicants take an oath of allegiance to the United States and renounce all political allegiance to their birth nations. Hence, questions on the meaning and significance of the oath should be part of the test. The oath is especially crucial to American democracy, because citizenship in America is not based on race, religion, or ethnicity, but on political loyalty. In taking the oath, the new citizen transfers allegiance from the land of his birth to the United States.
Oath-takers have a moral obligation to give up all political loyalty to their birth nations. True, the oath is sometimes violated by those who retain old citizenships, just as wedding vows are sometimes broken. Yet, the oath of allegiance, like wedding vows, represents not only a moral obligation for individuals, but a norm for our democracy, regardless of any technical loopholes allowing dual citizenship.
If it becomes routine for large numbers of new citizens to keep old political loyalties, the nature of American citizenship will be transformed, just as, say, legal polygamy would transform the nature of marriage. The principle that we are a people united by political allegiance rather than the ascriptive characteristics of race, ethnicity, and birth would be effectively repudiated.
After the November elections, national politicians will address immigration proposals designed to legalize "undocumented workers," or provide amnesty to illegal aliens (depending on your point of view), and put millions of them on the path to green cards and citizenship. The discussion to date has been almost entirely in economic terms with little or no reference to issues such as Americanization and patriotic assimilation.
"Patriotic Renewalists" on Capitol Hill could very well demand that before raising immigration quotas by embarking upon another legalization-cum-amnesty plan (the last one in 1986 was unsuccessful), we should get serious about patriotic assimilation. Rather than ignoring dual citizenship, we might want to take steps to limit this form of civic polygamy by, for example, enacting legal sanctions against naturalized American citizens who are elected to foreign legislatures in the land of their birth on anti-American party lists (as occurred on July 4, 2004 in Zacatecas, Mexico).
Like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, we should insist that immigration policy be combined with serious Americanization initiatives and that immigration levels remain dependent on how well we integrate newcomers patriotically. After all, we are a nation, not just a market.
This article appears in the September 2004 The American Enterprise.
John Fonte is a Senior Fellow and Director of Hudson's Center for American Common Culture.
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