By John Fonte
At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked (or so the story goes) what kind of government the founding fathers had created. He answered, "A republic, if you can keep it." "Keeping it," or preserving, perfecting, and perpetuating our democratic republic is the great issue that faces Americans in the 21st century.
The American system is described by political scientist James Ceaser as a compound regime that rests on two pillars. As the Declaration of Independence explains, these two pillars are "natural rights" and "the consent of the governed." The American regime, Ceaser notes, combines "constitutionalism" (in which the people limit themselves through a constitution that rests on the idea that individuals possess "rights" by their nature as human beings) and "republicanism" (self‑government, or the "consent" of "we the people").
The American system of government is both "liberal" (constitutionally limited, based on individual rights and equality of individual citizenship) and "democratic" (based on the rule of a self‑governing free people). Obviously, this is not to suggest that America has always been "liberal" and "democratic." (Slavery, segregation, discrimination, and inequality of citizenship have plagued our history.) Nevertheless, this is to suggest that America's founders consciously created a new form of regime that is a compound mix of constitutionalism and republicanism or liberalism and democracy.
How does large-scale immigration and increasing transnational connections affect American citizenship and our liberal democracy nation‑state at the beginning of the 21st century? On the following pages, this issue is examined from three perspectives. First, the traditional viewpoint on assimilating immigrants into American civic culture, beginning with George Washington and ending with Barbara Jordan, is discussed. Second, the challenge to the traditional view in the name of transnationalism and multiculturalism is analyzed. Third, the major issues in the clash between these two perspectives are explored.
The Traditional View
I believe that two implicit doctrines have traditionally guided America's approach to immigration and assimilation. I call them "American constitutional morality" and "patriotic assimilation."
American constitutional morality means adherence to the core principles of American constitutional democracy. These principles are set out in our two core documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which both affirm the sovereignty of a single American people. This is clear from the first sentence of the Declaration: "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds that have connected them to another." The idea of a self‑constituted people is also clear in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: "We the people of the United States...do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States."
Thus, American constitutional morality is realized by a people (nation) forming a government (state). Hence our liberal democracy is realized within the American nation‑state. Clearly, our constitutional morality tells us that: (1) we are one people in one nation‑state (unlike for example, Canada and Belgium); (2) the people are sovereign (hence, we are a self‑governing people); and (3) the power of the representatives of the people is limited by "natural rights" (because, all men are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.")
As a result, it is often said that the United States is a "propositional" nation in the sense that Americans are united by the core principles of liberty, democracy, equality of citizenship, and individual rights that are embodied in our core documents, as opposed to having common ethnic and religious roots. All of this is true to an extent. However, I will argue that we are more than a "propositional" nation; we are, rather, a "proposition-plus" nation.
By patriotic assimilation I mean that immigrants essentially adopt American civic values and the American heritage as their own. For example, patriotic assimilation occurs when immigrants and the children of immigrants begin to think of American history as "our history not "their" history. Lawrence Fuchs of Brandeis University describes Japanese‑American students in Honolulu in the 1930s referring to "our Pilgrim ancestors." Although this is in one sense ironic, in the larger sense of patriotic assimilation it is true that the Pilgrims and the founding fathers are the ancestors of all of us, regardless of when our families came to America or where they came from. In Lincoln's words it is "as though they were the blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration [of Independence] and so they are." By patriotic assimilation, I do not mean Anglo conformity. Patriotic assimilation is not concerned with religion, food, music, and ethnic subcultures, but with civic integration and the adoption by newcomers of America's civic story.
Patriotic assimilation means emotional as well as philosophical (or ideological) commitment to the nation. It moves beyond the "proposition" and suggests a "proposition-plus" nation. This was the view of the authors of the Federalist Papers. James Madison argues in Federalist 49 that even "the wisest and freest government" requires some degree of "veneration" in order to endure.
The Founders Views of Immigration and Assimilation
In the late 18th century, the young republic needed a larger population and encouraged immigration. At the same time, America's founders were concerned with assimilating immigrants. Thus, George Washington, in a letter to John Adams, stated that immigrants should be integrated into American life so that "by an intermixture with our people, they, or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, measures, laws: in a word soon become one people." In a 1790 speech to Congress on the naturalization of immigrants, James Madison stated that America should welcome the immigrant who could assimilate, but exclude the immigrant who could not readily "incorporate himself into our society." In Notes on Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
Every species of government has its specific principles. Ours...is a composition of the freest principles of the English constitution, with others derived from natural rights and natural reason. To these nothing can be more opposed than the maxims of absolute monarchies. Yet, from such, we are to expect the greatest number of emigrants. They will bring with them the principles of government they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing, as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty. These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their numbers, they will share with us the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and tender it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass.
Alexander Hamilton insisted that "the safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of citizens from foreign bias and prejudice; and on the love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education, and family." The ultimate success of the American republic, he maintained, depends upon "the preservation of a national spirit and a national character," among native born and immigrant alike.
Hamilton opposed granting citizenship immediately put to new immigrants: "To admit foreigners indiscriminately to the rights of citizens, the moment they foot in our country would be nothing less than to admit the Grecian horse into the citadel of our liberty and sovereignty." Instead, he recommended that we gradually draw newcomers into American life, "to enable aliens to get rid of foreign and acquire American attachments; to learn the principles and imbibe the spirit of our government; and to admit of a philosophy, at least, of their feeling a real interest in our affairs."
Clearly, Washington's call for "one people," Madison's insistence that the immigrant "incorporate himself into our society," Jefferson's concern that some newcomers might not be prepared for "temperate liberty," and Hamilton's emphasis on the "safety" of our republic and the "love of country," are all more or less of one piece. They are a clarion call for "patriotic assimilation." Given the founders' forthright insistence on patriotic assimilation, it is not surprising that the Naturalization Law of 1795 required that before becoming American citizens, aliens would have to "renounce under oath" all previous sovereign allegiances. This "renunciation clause" remains today part of the naturalization law and part of the oath to the U. S. Constitution that all new citizens must take.
Twentieth Century Americanizers: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Louis Brandeis
More than one hundred years after the founders promoted the importance of assimilating immigrants, the nation's leaders responded to the new mass immigration of early 20th century in much the same spirit.
Theodore Roosevelt's ideas on assimilation were incorporated in the Federal Textbook on Citizenship Training, published in 1931. The following quote by Roosevelt is taken from my grandmother's copy of this document.
Today, many will no doubt cringe as they read these words. My grandmother did not cringe; she studied them, passed the test, and became an American citizen. Contemporary sensibilities notwithstanding, this was the language of a self‑confident elite, an elite that was more successful than any other leadership class in history in integrating millions of culturally diverse foreigners into the nation's fabric. This was the language of a nation that would be prepared to meet the sacrifices of World War II. In my grandmother's case, this was the language of a nation that in the cause of freedom would send one of her sons to fight against her cousins in Sicily, the land of her birth, in July 1943.
Woodrow Wilson was a bitter rival of Theodore Roosevelt. But on the issue of assimilating immigrants they sounded very much like each other, and very like the founders. Thus, at a ceremony in Philadelphia in 1915, President Wilson praised the contributions of immigrants and spoke of their obligations to America. He declared:
You cannot dedicate yourself to America unless you become in every respect and with every purpose of your will thoroughly Americans. You cannot become thoroughly Americans if you think of yourselves in groups. A man who thinks of himself as belonging to a particular national group in America has not yet become an American.
This theme of patriotic assimilation, or Americanization, was also repeated by other leaders who were first‑generation Americans. One of the most prominent among them was Louis Brandeis, a major progressive, a leading political ally of Woodrow Wilson, and later a Supreme Court justice. In an address at Faneuil Hall in Boston on July 4, 1915, Brandeis declared:
However great his outward conformity, the immigrant is not Americanized unless his interests and affections have become deeply rooted here. And we properly demand of the immigrant even more than this--he must be brought into complete harmony with our ideals and aspirations and cooperate with us for their attainment. Only when this has been done will he possess the national consciousness of an American.
In evoking the need for new citizens to adopt the "national consciousness of an American," Louis Brandeis echoed Alexander Hamilton's call for all Americans to embrace a "national spirit" and a "national character." Hamiltons and Brandeis positions are both clear examples of a "patriotic assimilation" that includes aspects of ideological and cultural integration, combined with a strong emotional attachment to American liberal democracy. It is significant to note that at the time of his Faneuil Hall address Brandeis was head of the Provisional Executive Committee for Zionist Affairs and deeply involved in efforts to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This suggests that early 20th-century Americanization was more pluralist than often portrayed, and compatible with voluntary ethnic, religious, and other sub-cultural affiliations, affections, and activities.
In response to the mass immigration at the turn of the century Congress passed the Naturalization Act of 1906‑07, which strengthened citizenship requirements. Specifically, Congress required new citizens to be able to speak English and answer questions about American history and government. In addition, political opponents, such as anarchists, of the American "proposition" were forbidden to become citizens. Later in the century, the obligation to "serve in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by law" was added to the oath of citizenship. Historian Philip Gleason notes that interest in these issues "began to wane" with the immigration restrictions of the 1920s, until they were revived in the 1960s. With the new wave of immigration after changes in immigration law in 1965, one heard little about Americanization and much about cultural pluralism and multiculturalism. However, by the late 1990s, the idea of Americanization was slowly beginning to make a comeback. Two books, Assimilation, American Style, by Peter Salins, and The Unmaking of Americans: How Multiculturalism Has Undermined America's Assimilation Ethic, by John J. Miller, advocated support for the traditional approach to patriotic assimilation and Americanization.
In the political sphere, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, a leading African‑American statesman from Texas, became the new champion of patriotic assimilation. A report to Congress by the immigration commission she chaired in 1997 reiterated many of the traditional premises of American constitutional morality. For example, the report stated unequivocally that the United States is a nation "based on individual not collective," rights and that we should "continue to emphasize the rights of individuals over those of groups." In a public speech in August 1995, Congresswoman Jordan declared that the term "Americanization" had unfortunately earned a bad reputation because it "had been stolen by racists and xenophobes." It was, however, she insists, "our word and we are going to take it back." In that same speech Jordan echoed the traditional views of the founders and the early 20th-century Americanizers: "We are a nation of immigrants, dedicated to the rule of law. That is our history and it is our challenge to ourselves...It is literally a matter of who we are as a nation and who we become as a people. E Pluribus Unum: Out of one many. One people. The American people."
The Challenge: From American Liberal Democracy to Transnational America or Post-America
In July 1916, the Atlantic Monthly published an article by Randolph Bourne entitled "Transnational America," in which the author rejected assimilation and called for a "cosmopolitan federation of national colonies, of foreign cultures" that would result "not in a nationality, but a transnationality, a weaving back and forth with the other lands." Thus, in the future, America would not be a land of "one people," but many different "peoples" with strong transnational ties. At that time, however, Bourne, Horace Kallen, and other proto‑multiculturalists were waging a losing battle against a patriotic elite led by men like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Louis Brandeis.
In January 1998, the American Prospect published an article that essentially updated Bourne's "transnationalism" in contemporary terms. The author of the essay, T. Alexander Alienikoff, is a law professor who served in a key position at the INS during the mid‑1990s. Citing Bourne, Alienikoff attacks Peter Salins' argument that immigrants have an implicit "contract" to assimilate to American ideals. He states, "Salins thus repeats the old error of seeing America as fixed and placing the needed adjustment on the immigrant's side." Alienikoff declares that America is a "contract under constant renegotiation." This "renegotiation" of the American "contract" (or proposition) is to be undertaken by "mutually respecting [ethnic] groups, which he labels the "constituent parts" of the nation. Alienikoff's substitution of ethnic "groups" for individual citizens is the mirror opposite of Woodrow Wilson's speech to new citizens in Philadelphia in 1915.
In important ways, Alienikoff's position represents the views of a new post‑patriotic elite that challenges the traditional assimilationist paradigm. Another key policy figure at the INS during the 1990s was deputy commissioner Robert Bach. Georgie Anne Geyer, in her book Americans No More: The Death of Citizenship, reports that Bach believes the problem in America may not be diversity but homogeneity." In other words, assimilation is more of a problem than a solution. Alienikoff and Bach are representative figures of a new type of post‑patriotic elite that is very different from the assimilationist elite at the beginning at the 20th century. Needless to say, it is difficult to achieve patriotic assimilation if the key policymakers in the federal agency in charge of implementing naturalization policy prefer the civic philosophy of Randolph Bourne to that of Louis Brandeis.
Immigration Lawyers and Activists Challenge Traditional Concepts of Citizenship
It is significant that for decades leading scholars and activists have worked for the following measures that I contend would weaken American citizenship:
- Ending the requirement that new citizens renounce all prior national allegiances;
- Ending the English language requirement for citizenship because it is "discriminatory";
- Making citizenship tests easier or eliminating them altogether;
- Eliminating all legal distinctions between citizens and non‑citizen permanent residents;
- Changing laws to encourage non‑citizen voting;
- Promoting more dual citizenship;
- Creating new legal categories of "discrimination" that would consider non‑citizens (including illegal immigrants) members of "victim" groups like racial minorities and women and thus deserving of preferential treatment;
- Using recent international law on immigration to override traditional principles in U.S. constitutional law.
For example, in the Wall Street Journal, two leading law professors, Peter Spiro from Hofstra and Peter Schuck from Yale, complained that "since 1795," immigrants seeking American citizenship are required "to renounce 'all allegiance and fidelity' to their old nations." These law professors advocate dropping this "renunciation clause" from the oath and modifying the traditional idea of the hyphenated American. Instead of Dominican‑Americans or Mexican‑Americans who are loyal citizens while proud of their ethnic roots, they prefer "dual nationals," people who are both "Dominican and American," or "Mexican and American," who retain "loyalties" to their "original homeland" and vote in both countries.
Since the Warren Court decision in Afroyim v Rusk (1967), it has become very difficult for an American citizen to lose citizenship unless he or she specifically renounces it. The five-to‑four Afroyim decision, written by Hugo Black, overturned Felix Frankfurter's decision in Perez v Brownell (1957) that "it was within the authority of Congress, under its power to regulate U.S. relations with foreign countries, to provide that anyone voting in a foreign public election loses American citizenship." In Perez, Felix Frankfurter (a close associate of Louis Brandeis) articulated the traditional view that had existed from the founders to the 1960s. Justice Frankfurter declared that Congress was essentially correct in interpreting that voting in a foreign election shows "elements of an allegiance to another country in some measure, at least, inconsistent with American citizenship."
Furthermore, Frankfurter approvingly quoted the report of the Citizenship Board of 1906 that, "no man should be permitted deliberately to place himself in a position where his services may be claimed by more than one government and his allegiance be due to more than one." The four dissenters in Afroyim, justices Harlan, Clark, Stewart, and White attacked the majority decision as "a remarkable process of circumlocution." They stated that the majority simply presented an "unsubstantiated assertion that Congress did not have any general power" in the area of defining loss of citizenship, a power Congress had traditionally held for more than a century. Moreover, the dissenters noted that the majority "failed almost entirely to dispute" Frankfurter's reasoning in Perez.
General Assumptions Among Today's Elites that Work Against Patriotic Assimilation
The challenge to traditional patriotic assimilation is deeply embedded in many of the chief assumptions among today's elites. These assumptions include:
- The primacy of the culture group over the individual citizen
The key unit in the nation is not the individual citizen, but the ascriptive group (racial, ethnic, or gender) that one is born into.
- A dichotomy of groups: oppressor groups versus victim groups, with immigrant groups placed among the victims
There are basically two types of groups: (1) "oppressor" groups (white males, Anglos) and (2) "victim" groups (blacks, Latinos obviously including many immigrants and women). Equity and social justice require strengthening the position of the victim groups and weakening the position of the oppressor groups, hence group preferences are justified. Recently, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled that illegal immigrants as a class are discriminated against, thus granting them victim status, and thus entitling them to preferential treatment as a group.
- Group proportionalism as a societal goal
Victim groups should be represented in all institutions of society roughly proportionate to their percentage of the population or of the local work force.
- The values of all dominant institutions must be changed to reflect the perspectives of the victim groups It is not enough simply to have proportionate numbers of minorities and women in major institutions of society if these institutions continue to reflect a "white Anglo male culture. Minorities should not be expected to conform to the mainstream culture. At a U.S. Department of Education conference promoting bilingual education, SUNY professor Joel Spring declared, "We must use multiculturalism and multilingualism to change the dominant culture of the United States." He noted, for example, that unlike Anglo culture, Latino culture is "warm" and would not promote harsh disciplinary measures in the schools.
- The demographic imperative
Demographic changes render the traditional paradigm of American nationhood obsolete. That traditional paradigm, based on individual rights, majority rule, national sovereignty, citizenship, and the assimilation of immigrants into an existing American civic culture is too narrow and must be changed into a system that promotes "diversity," defined, in the end, as group proportionalism.
- The redefinition of democracy and "democratic ideals"
Democracy is redefined from being majority rule among equal citizens to power sharing among culture groups composed of both citizens and non‑citizens. James Banks, one of American education's leading textbook writers, says: "To create an authentic democratic unum with moral authority and perceived legitimacy, the pluribus (diverse peoples) must negotiate and share power." According to Banks, existing American liberal democracy is not quite authentic; real democracy is still to be created. It will come when the different "peoples" or groups that live within America "share power" as groups.
- We are entering a new transnational era that will inevitably transform traditional ideas of liberal democratic citizenship
We are entering a new age of transnationalism that will transform citizenship. A recent president of the American Sociological Association, Alejandro Portes, suggests that concepts of citizenship and community are not "static," and thus, "transnationality and its political counterpart dual citizenship may not be a sign of imminent civic breakdown but the vanguard" of "new notions" for "the next century." (Transnationalism should be distinguished from internationalism, which is concerned with relations among nations and issues, such as the benefits of freer trade and peaceful cooperation among nation‑states. Transnationalism is, by definition, "post‑constitutional" beyond the limits of the U.S. Constitution.)
The next several decades will witness a profound struggle between those who wish to preserve and perpetuate the American regime as it has been traditionally constituted and those who wish to transform and transcend it by turning it into a new hybrid system in the name of transnational, multicultural, and demographic imperatives. Let us examine three crucial battlegrounds in the great philosophical and moral conflicts that lie ahead: (1) the maintenance of the oath of renunciation and allegiance for new citizens, (2) the issue of multiple (dual) citizenships, and, most important, (3) the nature of assimilation that occurs among the new immigrants.
The Occupation of the Moral High Ground Is Crucial
Great philosophical conflicts are usually dependent upon moral argument. This is particularly true in the United States, a nation, as G. K. Chesterton put it, "with the soul of a church." Thus slavery and racial segregation were condemned on moral grounds before they were eliminated in practice because they violated the fundamental principles of our constitutional democracy. The issues we are examining could be boiled down to two moral questions: Does the American civic regime have the right to perpetuate itself? Should it perpetuate itself? At the end of the day, these questions will be decided by moral argument. American civic traditionalists have a strong moral case, and they should not hesitate to defend on principle our constitutional morality and the idea of patriotic assimilation as articulated by America's leaders, from George Washington and Alexander Hamilton to Louis Brandeis and Barbara Jordan.
1. The Oath of Renunciation and Allegiance to the Constitution that New Citizens Take
At the end of the naturalization ceremony, the candidates take the oath of citizenship. Almost all observers agree that this is the most moving part of the naturalization ceremony. This oath is central to the constitutional morality that undergirds our liberal democracy. At the core of our constitutional democracy is the concept of self‑government. Sovereignty resides with the American people. In taking the oath, the immigrant is joining the American people and transferring full political allegiance (but obviously not all ties and affection) from his or her birth nation to the United States of America. This oath this transfer of allegiance is at the heart of naturalization. This is so because to retain allegiance to a foreign state is to continue membership in another people and is inconsistent with the moral foundations of American democracy that, as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution put it, make us "one people." To retain allegiance to another constitution after promising sole allegiance to the American constitution, by definition, violates the spirit of our constitutional morality.
It is precisely because we are "a nation of immigrants" from all parts of the world, and because, unlike many other countries, our nation‑state is not based on race, ethnicity, or religion, but on our constitutional principles, that allegiance should not be watered down for millions of new members. We must be serious about the oath of citizenship because of the kind of nation we are.
2. Plural Citizenship Advances Transnational Neo‑Medievalism
Peter Spiro, an advocate of dual citizenship and dual nationality, pointed out that these positions have for a long time been "draped in the heavy mantle of moral condemnation." He quotes the famous American historian George Bancroft, who wrote that nations should, "as soon tolerate a man with two wives as a man with two countries; as soon bear with polygamy as that state of double allegiance which common sense so repudiates that it has not even coined a word to express it." Spiro notes also that Theodore Roosevelt called the "theory" of dual nationality "a self‑evident absurdity." The views of George Bancroft and Theodore Roosevelt could be contrasted with today's dual citizenship advocates. For example, Australian professor Gianni Zappal remarked recently at one of the many academic conferences on transnationalism that he is a multiple citizen, eligible to vote in four different national and post‑national political units, including Australia, Italy, Great Britain, and the European Union. Moreover, he declared that he sees "no conflict" in any of this.
In effect, we are examining what Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment calls "neo‑medievalism," in which transnational and subnational arrangements and loyalties weaken emotional attachment to the nation‑state. Neo‑medievalism, it turns out, is an apt term. Cornell professor Jeremy Rabkin, an expert on constitutional and international law, has pointed out that the American founders rejected the medieval world of pre‑democractic and transnational aristocracies in favor of the modern world that saw the introduction of the first liberal democratic nation‑state, the United States of America. The founders were internationalists. They believed in the "law of nations" and in good relations among nation‑states, but they were not transnationalists who moved beyond the political structure of the nation to a trans-constitutional legality.
As a concept, plural (dual) citizenship is consistent with a post‑modern, neo‑medieval world- view of multiple-national, transnational, and sub-national political loyalties. But it is totally inconsistent with American constitutional morality and the philosophical core of our liberal democratic nation‑state. At the heart of American self‑government is the principle that sovereignty resides in a single American people. As such, the American people is made up of individual citizens with equal rights and obligations. Equality of individual citizenship in a government based on natural rights (constitutional liberty) and the consent of the governed (self‑government) is central to the American regime.
The notion of "dual citizenship," that is to say, individuals belonging to several "peoples" at the same time, is inconsistent with the moral foundation of American democracy. In addition, dual citizenship violates the principle of equality of citizenship. It means that some citizens are more equal than others. It means that some citizens (dual citizens) are, in effect, supra‑citizens because, unlike other Americans, they have voting power in more than one state and are loyal to more than one constitution. In this sense, they are like the aristocrats of the Middle Ages, such as the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, whose political loyalties moved beyond a single political state. Dual citizenship also violates our constitutional morality in the sense that the dual citizen is subject to other legal arrangements from foreign constitutions that are, by definition, beyond the scope of the U.S. Constitution. The plural citizenship arrangement is, therefore, trans- or extra‑constitutional and antithetical to our constitutional morality.
Recently, the dual citizenship issue has been intensified by the Mexican dual nationality law of 1998. Shortly before the Mexican Congress passed the dual nationality law, Linda Chavez wrote in her syndicated column: "Never before has the United States had to face a problem of dual loyalties among its citizens of such great magnitude and proximity...For the first time, millions of U.S. citizens could declare their allegiance to a neighboring country."
3. The Nature of the Assimilation that Occurs Among the New Immigrants
In the end it is the type of assimilation that is crucial. There is no doubt that assimilation will occur in some form. For the most part, immigrants (and certainly the children and grandchildren of immigrants) will learn English and become more or less acculturated to the customs of American society. American mass culture is a powerful integrating force, and should exert a strong influence on newcomers, particularly the young. However, whether this assimilation will be "patriotic" or only "popular cultural" is an open question.
It is possible that assimilation will remain at the level of mass popular culture and indifference to American patriotism. Moreover, newcomers could assimilate into the world of group consciousness, ethnic grievances, and perpetual victimhood, in which case, they would become reflexively hostile to mainstream norms, patriotic sensibilities, and our traditional constitutional republican ideology of individual, not group rights.
Gregory Rodriquez and others have shown that economic and mass cultural assimilation is occurring, with home ownership and English language skills increasing among newcomers. However, the evidence regarding patriotic assimilation is troubling. The best evidence we have to date is a longitudinal study of 5,000 children of immigrants from the mid‑1990s by Rubin Rumbaut for the Russell Sage Foundation. The study began when the children were in ninth grade (around 13 years old) and concluded four years later, when they were around 17. The study showed that after four years of American high school the children of Mexican and Filipino immigrants were fifty percent more likely to self‑identify themselves as Mexicans and Filipinos than as Mexican‑Americans, Filipino‑Americans, or unhyphenated Americans. Overall, there were major decreases in the number of students identifying themselves as either Americans or hyphenated Americans and increases in the number of students identifying themselves either by a generic ethnic category (Latino, Asian) or by national origin (Mexican, Filipino). Thus, what I have called "patriotic assimilation," or identification with America, actually decreased dramatically for the children of immigrants during one the most impressionable periods of a young person's life, the four years of high school.
Also new is the situation with the immigrant‑sending nations, particularly with Mexico. Latin American expert Robert Leiken has examined the Mexican government's policy of "acercamiento," or "getting closer," to "Mexican communities aboard," meaning Mexicans and also Mexican‑Americans who are U.S. citizens living in the United States. He reports that since 1990 the Mexican government has promoted bilingual education, specifically the teaching of the Spanish language and Mexican culture in American classrooms. In many schools in California and the Southwest, American students of Latino descent are taught by Mexicans and Mexican‑trained teachers and use Mexican textbooks. The Los Angeles Times stated that some American classrooms even fly Mexican rather than American flags.
Clearly, Mexican policies are in opposition to "patriotic assimilation," the Louis Brandeis concept that "the immigrant is not Americanized unless his interests and affections have become deeply rooted here" and he "possess[es] the national consciousness of an American." In this sense, the Mexican policy is much closer to Randolph Bourne's idea of a transnationality in America. At the same time, the budding alliance between the Mexican government and advocacy organizations like the Ford-Foundation‑funded Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) means that when assimilation occurs it will not be in the context of individual rights and one American people, but of a world view of group consciousness and group rights. After all, MALDEF's entire history had been one of promoting group rights over individual rights and fostering ethnic grievances and group preferences. The "assimilation" that would be advanced in such circumstances would not be patriotic assimilation into the civic morality of American liberal democracy.
In the final analysis, there is a clash of national interests between the United States government's interest in Americanizing new immigrants and the Mexican government's insistence on fostering strong attachments (including those of a civic and political nature) between Mexican‑Americans and the Mexican nation‑state for the purpose of advancing Mexican interests. At this point, the interest of the U.S. in patriotically assimilating Mexican immigrants and the interest of Mexico in maintaining the strong allegiances of U.S. citizens is a zero‑sum game. Nor does the advance of democracy in Mexico necessarily promise to improve this situation, particularly since the new PAN government appears willing to pursue even more "transnationalist" political policies than the old PRI regime. All of this means that serious and skillful diplomacy will be required from the American side. While encouraging democratic and free market reforms and respecting Mexican national interests and sovereignty, American leaders must, in the end, insist upon our very real interest in patriotically assimilating Mexican immigrants into the American nation‑state.
It is inevitable that at any conference on immigration and assimilation one of the participants will declare that "we have been through all this before; the immigrants of today will Americanize just as they did in the past." However, the situation today is different from the early part of the 20th century in many crucial respects.
At that time, we had self‑confident patriotic elites in politics, education, business, religion, and civic associations that insisted that new immigrants Americanize. Today we have diffident and divided elites in all areas of civic life that are either promoting anti‑Americanization policies such as multiculturalism and "diversity," or doing little. At that time, we insisted that schools teach in English. Today, litigators ensure that many Latino children will be taught in Spanish for most of the school day. At that time, the federal government promoted Americanism and individual rights. Today it promotes group consciousness and group rights. At that time, citizenship naturalization was strengthened; today it has been weakened.
At that time, no foreign government on our border, or anywhere else, was promoting bilingualism, biculturalism, and dual nationality. Today, the Mexican government is openly undermining the process of patriotically assimilating our new citizens. At that time, the United States had control of its borders. Today, border control is little more than a public relations game. At that time, immigration was ultimately slowed. Today immigration may be, as the new president of the American Sociological Association predicted, "perpetual." At that time, ocean travel and long-distance communication were slow and expensive. Today, air travel and modern telecommunications are fast and cheap. As sociologist Alejandro Portes wrote in 1996, "If today's U.S.‑bound immigrants faced the same economic and technological conditions as their European predecessors at the turn of the century, there would be no transnational communities."
Nevertheless, although there are major obstacles to patriotic assimilation that did not exist in the past, and despite elite opinion, there is evidence that the American people as a whole strongly support the traditional approach to assimilating newcomers to America. The latest report by Public Agenda, the social science research firm directed by Daniel Yankelovich and Cyrus Vance, reveals that Americans today, from all races and ethnic groups, support patriotic assimilation.
For example, parents were asked "What should be a bigger priority?" teaching students "to be proud of being part of this country and learning the rights and responsibilities of citizenship" or "focusing on instilling pride in their ethnic group's identity and heritage." By 79 percent to 18 percent, parents of all races and ethnicities favored emphasis on "pride in and learning about America" over "focusing on pride in their own ethnic group's identity and heritage." Hispanic parents, by 80 percent to 17 percent, preferred "pride in America" over "pride in one's ethnic heritage." Foreign‑born parents overall emphasized "pride in America" by 73 percent to 23 percent, and African-Americans by 66 percent to 29 percent. In fact, by 65 percent to 26 percent, Americans believed that schools should "help new immigrants absorb America's language and culture as quickly as possible, even if their native language and culture are neglected."
For the past two centuries Americans have heeded Benjamin's Franklin's admonition to "keep" our republic. We have fought major wars to preserve our union and extend our freedom against an internal slave‑holding elite in the 19th century and against external totalitarian powers in the 20th century. Today, those who support the traditional approach of patriotic assimilation as a means to preserve, perfect, and perpetuate America's constitutional democracy need a tough‑minded strategy that will consider the different circumstances of the 21st century. This strategy would include the vigorous arousal of public support against the elites who preach determinism by telling us that old-style Americanization must inevitably give way to unstoppable "social forces."
To begin this effort and steel ourselves against determinism, we should turn to the first page of Federalist No. 1 and ponder Alexander Hamilton's words, "It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."
John Fonteis a senior fellow and director of the Center for American Common Culture at the Hudson Institute. He directed the Committee to Review National History Standards while serving as a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He also has served as a senior researcher at the U.S. Department of Education, a program administrator at the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a research fellow at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution.