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Republican Debate Needs Immigration Unity

Linda Chavez & John Fonte

The two of us strongly disagree on immigration policy and have engaged in lively public debate on the issue over the years. But one thing we agree on is that whatever immigration policy prevails, it must be accompanied by the patriotic assimilation of immigrants and their children. Support for patriotic assimilation should unite Republicans on both sides of the immigration issue. We’d like to see the matter addressed in the Republican presidential debate Thursday.

The essential American ideal of E Pluribus Unum “out of many one,” was put on the Great Seal of the United States during the American Revolution and came to signify our nation’s great success in assimilating immigrants. Today, however, many of our institutions appear to focus almost exclusively on the pluribus, while ignoring the unum, preferring to emphasize what divides us into groups rather than what unites us as Americans.

This divisive group-based emphasis has been going on for decades. In 1978, in one of his famous radio broadcasts, Ronald Reagan lauded the success of immigrant assimilation, while lamenting efforts “to change this land from a melting pot into an all nations smorgasbord.” He warned that, “possibly for political purposes, we seem bent on doing away with the melting pot, recreating strict ethnic divisions.”

It has only gotten worse since, largely without an honest, serious, and open debate on what type of assimilation is best for our country.

To be clear, by patriotic assimilation we do not mean that newcomers to America must give up all ethnic traditions, customs, and birth languages. Patriotic assimilation has nothing to do with the food one eats, the religion one practices, the affection that one feels for the land of one’s birth and the second languages that one speaks. Multi-ethnicity and ethnic subcultures have enriched America since colonial days.

However, while we are a multiracial and multiethnic people, we are not and should not be, “multicultural” in the adversarial sense of clashing and conflicting world views, ways of life and what Tocqueville called mores, habits of the heart. We need to help newcomers form an attachment to and loyalty towards our constitutional democracy and affirm what used to proudly be called the American way of life. And it is not only immigrants who would benefit from a re-invigoration of patriotic assimilation. Our education system has failed to inculcate these values in native-born Americans as well.

So what constitutes patriotic assimilation? First of all, if our democracy is going to work, Americans must be able to communicate with each other.

A common language is essential for the health of our constitutional republic and civic life. For historical reasons, English has been that common language and we should make it our official language. Encouraging newcomers to learn English benefits immigrants by allowing them to climb the economic ladder and integrate into the larger society. Policies that segregate youngsters who speak a foreign language do them a great disservice. Instead, our priority should be to teach them English quickly and move them into the educational mainstream.

Second, we should reject policies that deepen ethnic and cultural divisions, classifying Americans by artificial, bureaucratically-created groups that government officials then use to award preferences in hiring, contracting, and college admissions. Past discrimination of racial and ethnic minorities in America was shameful. But contemporary “identity politics” and politically correct ethnic and racial discrimination that favors some groups over others is similarly divisive and wrong.

Third, our schools should teach the full story of America. Too often, trendy educators prefer to view American history through the distorted lens of race, ethnicity, gender, and class with an emphasis on ethnic, imperialist, and capitalist “exploitation,” ignoring the comprehensive narrative of our constitutional, intellectual, economic and cultural development and positive role in world affairs.

Demographic changes have made it more important than ever that our children are familiar first and foremost with American history as opposed to a “global” approach that focuses on other societies.

As philosopher Sidney Hook put it in 1984, precisely because America is a “pluralistic, multiethnic, uncoordinated society” all citizens need a “prolonged schooling in the history of our free society, its martyrology, and its national tradition.”

Finally, newcomers preparing for citizenship should be taught that patriotism — love of their new country — is essential to good citizenship. Being a good citizen entails knowing one’s duty not just one’s rights. But it is not only immigrants who need this lesson. We need leaders in government, education, business and culture who are not embarrassed about speaking openly on the centrality of patriotism to the wellbeing of our nation.

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