A possibly unifying immigration proposal
By Paul M. Weyrich
The debate over immigration resumed last week now that Congress has returned. Senate Majority Leader William Frist, M.D. (R-TN) has indicated that he hopes the Senate will pass an immigration bill by Memorial Day.
Issues such as guest worker status and the appropriate level of immigration are controversial, causing dissent within ideological factions. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and John Cornyn (R-TX) and Representative James R. Ryun (R-KS) are advancing a proposal that should unite warring factions and help to strengthen our country.
Senator Alexander is the prime proponent of the Strengthening American Citizenship Act, which passed the Senate 91-1 earlier this month as an amendment to an immigration bill which had stalled.
Fortifying the American conception of citizenship receives less discussion than guest-worker status and border security but it is truly essential to ensuring the continued strength of our country. Senator Alexander reminded the Senate in late March that our country has long derived its purpose and strength because "we have united people from many backgrounds into one nation, based upon our belief in a few ideas rather than upon race, ancestry or background." The most important principle of our country is expressed in our national motto: E Plurbis Unum, "one from many."
Immigration – legal and illegal -- presents very different problems than at the turn of the 20th Century. Immigrants from Europe were forced to make a decisive physical and social break with their native countries, having to cross an ocean to come here. True, once immigrants arrived many of them banded together in their own communities, formed their own churches and institutions, but they realized -- and this point was emphasized by the schools, politicians and civic organizations -- that the English language was to be learned and citizenship was a privilege that incurred responsibilities. Samuel Huntington, in a March/April 2004 Foreign Policy article on "The Hispanic Challenge," wrote that it is our creed and culture, not a specific race or religion, which makes our country unique. Our English language, reliance on Judeo-Christian ethics, belief in the rule of law and the work ethic represent the culture of our country. So does our historic willingness to welcome newcomers from other lands and offer them citizenship. "Historically, millions of immigrants were attracted to the United States because of this culture and the economic opportunities and political liberties it made possible," Huntington asserted.
America now faces a very different situation regarding immigration. More than one-quarter of the foreign-born population of our country is Mexican; the next largest groups, Chinese and Filipino, were less than 5% each in 2000. Huntington wrote, "In the 1990s, Mexicans composed more than half of the new Latin American immigrants to the United States and, by 2000, Hispanics totaled about one half of all migrants entering the continental United States.'
Many immigrants come from Latin America now; no huge ocean separates them from their native countries. Cheap long distance rates make it easier than ever for immigrants to maintain contact with their native countries. For Mexicans proximity to their neighboring country can blur allegiance and inhibit assimilation. Worse, as was discussed at a panel on Immigration Assimilation And Its Implication For The Common Culture, held last month by the Free Congress Foundation, the predominance of multiculturalism – as opposed to Americanism – which now dominates the curricula of our educational and civic institutions inhibits many immigrants, legal and illegal, and their children, from assimilating.
Huntington warns that many Mexican children living here lack a strong identification with the United States and a respect for our history and institutions. He cites a 1992 study surveying children of immigrants in Southern California and South Florida who were asked, "How do you identify, that is, what do you call yourself?" The findings were disturbing:
"None of the children born in Mexico answered ‘American,' compared with 1.9 percent to 9.3 percent of those born elsewhere in Latin America or the Caribbean. The largest percentage of Mexican-born children (41.2 percent) identified themselves as ‘Hispanic,' and the second largest (36.2 percent) chose ‘Mexican.' Among Mexican-American children born in the United States, less than 4 percent responded ‘American,' compared to 28.5 percent to 50 percent of those born in the United States with parents from elsewhere in Latin America. Whether born in Mexico or in the United States, Mexican children overwhelmingly did not choose ‘American' as their primary identification."
Enter Senator Alexander and the Strengthening American Citizenship Act.
Alexander's legislation calls for providing $500 grants to legal immigrants for English courses and enabling those fluent in English to apply for citizenship one year earlier than the five-year requirement. Grants to organizations offering courses in American history and civics would be provided and the positive contributions made by naturalized citizens to American society would be highlighted.
Alexander's legislation calls for writing the Oath of Allegiance into law, a step more significant than many current Americans would realize but one that would make George Washington proud. Washington and his officers signed such an oath in which they declared their first and foremost allegiance was to the United States and its defense rather than to Great Britain. The modern version of the Oath of Allegiance is:
"I take this oath solemnly, freely, and without any mental reservation. I absolutely and entirely renounce all allegiance to any foreign state or power of which I have been a subject or citizen. My fidelity and allegiance from this day forward are to the United States of America. I will bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution and laws of the United States, and will support and defend them against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I will bear arms, or perform noncombatant military or civilian service, on behalf of the United States when required by law. This I do solemnly swear, so help me God."
Alexander wants to place the Oath of Allegiance into law – not, as it is now, a regulation – establishing it on equal footing with the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem.
Americans should take pride in their country's historic willingness to extend a helping hand to newcomers seeking freedom and opportunity. Where would they be now if their forefathers had not been extended the opportunity by the United States of America to become citizens? The realities of this new era of terrorism and competitiveness impel some prudent rethinking. More must be done to secure our borders and ensure that native-born Americans have opportunities to work, achieve and advance. Frequently jobs will be taken by immigrants, often illegal, which could be performed by Americans with a solid work ethic. Hiring illegal immigrants is an effective deterrent from encouraging a stronger work ethic taking hold in our poorest citizens and to encourage better pay to perform certain jobs considered "unskilled labor."
Alexander offers a dose of common sense to a debate that has been polarizing and sweeping. (Even-handedness would demand legal consequences for employers who knowingly hire undocumented aliens.) Nor is it just legal immigrants who should be the focus of improved civic education. Many young American citizens are not learning their own country's history and how its government functions. This is indeed troubling. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. warns, "A nation that forgets its history is disabled in dealing with the present and the future."
Senator Alexander, by his Strengthening American Citizenship Act, hopes to reinstill our country's sense of Americanism and its underlying concepts – belief in freedom and liberty and equal justice – that have made our country favored by people throughout the world. We must hope it will be part of the immigration bill that the Senate plans to reconsider by Memorial Day and that the House will also give serious thought to enacting its measures. Those concepts which have served our country so well should be reinforced.
Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.
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