May 24, 2006
By Matthew Spalding, Ph.D.
No matter how the debate on immigration plays
out, it's safe to predict that large numbers will continue to
immigrate to America every year for decades to come.
As lawmakers debate the Who, How Many and From
Where questions of immigration, they also should focus on a largely
ignored question: How do we assure that legal immigrants
assimilate? How do we assure that they become fully functional
citizens whose sense of national identification -- and loyalty --
resides first and foremost with the United States?
President Bush and others have stipulated that
assimilation demands that immigrants learn to speak English.
Certainly, by acquiring America's common language, immigrants
demonstrate a serious effort to become part of our great country.
Moreover, research shows that immigrants who learn English earn
more, learn more and move up the social ladder much more
But learning English, while necessary for
assimilation, isn't sufficient. Not by a long shot. For America's
uniquely successful immigration story is grounded in a deliberate
and self-confident policy of forming patriots. While welcoming
newcomers, America always has insisted that they learn and embrace
America's broad civic culture and political institutions. Only in
this way can those who come here truly become Americans.
The recent elevation of multiculturalism as an
end unto itself has clouded this essential fact. Lawmakers should
clear the air and make the naturalization process more meaningful,
emphasizing the laws and processes meant to assure that newly
minted citizens are not just "of good moral character," but also
"attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United
States, and well disposed to the good order and happiness of the
United States," as it says in the Immigration and Nationality Act
Full citizenship requires an understanding of
our national history, political ideas and institutions. The native
born are supposed to receive that understanding via education at
home and in school. Immigrants must be schooled in our nation's
first principles -- the Declaration of Independence's insistence
that legitimate government is grounded in the protection of equal
natural rights and the consent of the governed -- and how the
Constitution and our institutions of limited government work to
protect liberty and the rule of law.
America's principles are the defining
characteristic of its national identity. But the Founders also
understood that sustaining the national identity requires a
thriving civil society.
Immigrants cannot become fully American by
creating enclaves, associating only with others from their native
land, speaking only their native tongue and hewing to their native
customs. Acquiring the habits, practices and spirit of America
requires extended interaction with native American citizens
encountered not just in the workplace but in local institutions
such as churches, schools and civic and social organizations -- the
building blocks of civil society.
Although many immigrate in search of freedom,
most come for economic opportunity as well. And their success will
be an important factor in their assimilation. The fruits of hard
work and entrepreneurship will bind immigrants to their new home.
The best we can do for new citizens is to offer them a hand up
rather than a handout. We need to make sure immigrants, especially
the poor and low-skilled, are not drawn into the perverse
incentives of the modern welfare state, whose policies discourage
self-reliance, family cohesiveness and financial independence.
Assimilation is necessary to foster not only
"that temperate love of liberty, so essential to real
republicanism," to use Alexander Hamilton's phrase, but also to
establish a genuine attachment to this country and to
these people. The objective is for the immigrant to come to
regard this nation as my country, to develop an enlightened
patriotism based on an understanding of and commitment to America,
what it stands for and who we are as a people.
The result of immigration policy throughout
American history has been to strengthen our social capital, expand
our general economy and provide constant renewal of this national
purpose. America has been good for immigrants, and immigrants have
been good for America. But this policy can succeed only if we
revive the one policy that makes American immigration work, and get
back to the hard and noble task of making citizens.
is director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at
The Heritage Foundation. He is the editor of The Founders' Almanac
(2001) and executive editor of The Heritage Guide to the
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire
America has been good for immigrants, and immigrants have been good for America. But this policy can succeed only if we revive the one policy that makes American immigration work, and get back to the hard and noble task of making citizens.
Matthew Spalding, Ph.D.
Vice President, American Studies and Director, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
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