Hyphenation vs. Dual Citizenship

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on January 16, 2011

Theodore Roosevelt's hyphen animus was as mistaken as it was understandable. He had a country about to go to war and 23 million new immigrants, most of them from the very continent where the war was being fought. And some of these immigrants had mixed feelings about plunging into a conflict that reignited complex feelings about their former home countries.

Roosevelt's major interest in these circumstances was American unity, not immigration theory. And even had he had such interests there was not much knowledge to guide him. In large part because of that great wave of immigration with which Roosevelt had to content, and what we learned from it, we now know a lot more about the process of both immigration and assimilation/integration.

I underscore the word "process" because that is one of the most important understandings that grew out of the research and policies that followed that great immigration wave. We understand now that it is naive and inappropriate to expect new immigrants to "become American" immediately. We understand that new immigrants will arrive here with emotional ties to their country of origin and that these ties will only gradually be joined by and, in the best of circumstances, be superseded by an emotional attachment and commitment to this country.

We understand that this takes time, and that the process is likely to be intergenerational. We understand that assimilation/integration into the American national community means more than believing democracy is the best form of government, and other common themes of the American Creed. We understand that getting a job and an education is part of the process, but that the ultimate goal of assimilation is for the immigrant and his or her descendants to develop an emotional attachment to the American national community.

We understand that government policies can either help or hinder immigrants from making the transition from strangers in our communities to members. We understand that the words and the stance of this country's political and civic leaders, and their expectations can also have a great deal of effect for good or ill on the immigration process.

And we now understand, as Roosevelt did not, that hyphenated Americans are quite distinct from dual citizens. Dual citizens are those who make an affirmative effort to retain their cultural, political, economic, and emotional ties to their homeland. They are less likely to see themselves primarily or exclusively as Americans. They are more likely to remain oriented to the language, customs, and outlook of their home country. And they are more likely to try and instill in their children an informational and emotional connection to the home country. They are also more likely to have a merely instrumental attachment to the United States.

This country may be where they work and send their children to school, but it is not at the end of the day "their country." They live here. They work here. They make their homes here. But their hearts and feelings ultimately lie elsewhere.

The hyphenated American, on the other hand, is a person in transition. And therein lies a very important difference.

Next: A Small Hyphen's Large Assimilation Results