Absent a coherent conservative policy toward the civic assimilation of immigrants, many conservatives have hit upon a new strategy: wishful thinking. The civic assimilation of immigrants proceeds successfully today, they trust, more or less as it did in the past. Don't worry, "we have been here before," Michael Barone reassures us in The New Americans, and most reviewers, conservative or no, seem to be agreeing.
However, two items from the past week's news challenge this rosy picture.
Item 1. On Monday July 9, the Los Angles Times reported that for the first time in history, a naturalized American citizen was elected to office in Mexico, under Mexico's new dual national law. Andres Bermudez, a former illegal immigrant, a successful vegetable producer, nicknamed the "Tomato King," was elected Mayor of Jerez, a city of 40,000 people in Zacatecas, Mexico. Of course, in becoming an American citizen in the early 1990s, Mayor Bermudez like millions of immigrants since 1795 took an oath to "absolutely and entirely renounce all allegiance" to any foreign state.
Pardon me, Mr. Barone but we have not "been there before." Our Sicilian immigrant relatives did not run for political office in Italy, all loyalty to which they formally renounced. True, in the past, Italian-Americans helped America by fighting the Communists in Italy in 1948. Just as today, Mexican-Americans are helping spread American principles by assisting the towns of their birth through hometown associations, as Latin American expert, Robert Leiken, has noted. However, once an immigrant becomes an American citizen, running for political office in a foreign country violates both the spirit of civic assimilation and the principles of our constitutional republic. These violations did not happen in the past; evidently they do now.
On Tuesday July 10, President Bush welcomed new Americans at a citizenship ceremony on Ellis Island. In the traditional language of patriotic assimilation, the president told the newcomers that "a few minutes ago I was the leader of another country. Now it's my honor to speak to you as the leader of your country." In other words, the president explained that with the Oath of Citizenship the immigrants had transferred allegiance from one country to another, from the land of their birth to the United States of America.
In contrast, the July 9th Los Angles Times reported that Andres Bermudez declared himself a "candidate of two nations, the Jerez that is here (California) and the Jerez that is there (Mexico)." Conspicuously, neither of the two "nations" he mentioned was the American nation.
Item 2. On Thursday July 11, the Denver Post quoted an interview they had held with Juan Hernandez, one of Mexican President Vincente Fox's chief advisers and the director of the new Presidential Office for Mexicans Abroad. Hernandez (who is also an American citizen) told the Post that Mexicans working in America "are going to keep one foot in Mexico." Moreover, he noted that while they "should engage politically in their U.S. communities," they "are not going to assimilate in the sense of dissolving into not being Mexican." However, one interprets his remarks, it is clear that there is something new in the air. We have not "been here before," either. Italian government officials were not making similar pronouncements in interviews with American newspapers in 1901.
Clearly, we are living in different times from the glory days of Ellis Island: Modern communications permit immigrants (now often called "transnational migrants") to stay in close contact with their birth nations, and American elites support anti-assimilation policies. (For a more detailed examination of the differences, and my full response to Barone, see "It's Not 1900 Any More," December 2000, American Enterprise Online
Recently, an AEI gathering of conservatives luminaries (Robert Bork, Francis Fukuyama, Lynne Cheney, Eliot Cohen) examining Walter Berns's new book Making Patriots, all agreed (with different degrees of emphasis to be sure) that the American nation is not only territorial-cultural (Bork's emphasis), but also (Berns's emphasis) creedal - founded on principles. If this is true, then civic or patriotic assimilation (loyalty to the American creed and our constitutional republic) is even more important than learning English or owning a home. Nevertheless, the advanced communications and transnational loyalties of the 21st century make civic assimilation more difficult (understandably enough) even as newcomers learn English and gain wealth, as the case of Andres Bermudez illustrates.
What is to be done? How can conservatives appeal to new immigrants for political support without forfeiting their conservative principles on citizenship, or wavering in their repudiation of group rights? The first order of business is to think clearly. Civic assimilation does not simply happen automatically. For one thing, it demands a vigorous, officially recognized Americanization effort on the part of both the government (i.e. administration policy) and civil society (support from foundations, activists etc.). It also demands that we regard immigration and Americanization as a seamless web, and that our policies hold the two indivisible.
We have not yet had a serious discussion within the conservative movement on the central problem of how to "conserve" our constitutional regime in the face of a new transnational world. With its advocacy of multiple, dual, and "post-national" citizenships, this new world presents an ideological challenge to our liberal democratic nation-state. Very soon, the administration will decide U.S. policy on amnesty for illegal immigrants and a possible new "guest worker" program with Mexico. The 800-pound gorilla in the room is Mexico's dual national law. New policies could mean millions of new dual citizens, changing forever the traditional idea of civic assimilation, that immigrants transfer allegiance from the old country to the American republic, because the newcomers could also be loyal citizens of the Mexican republic. Theodore Roosevelt called dual citizenship a "self-evident absurdity." Michael Barone told a C-SPAN audience on July 7 not to worry about Mexico's new dual national law. Conservatives will soon have to decide if they agree with TR or Michael Barone.