May 20, 2003

PATRIOTIC ASSIMILATION

We Need a Patriotic Assimilation Policy (John Fonte, 5/14/2003, American Outlook)
In America, today as in the past, immigration and assimilation are bound together like Siamese twins. It makes no sense to discuss immigration without talking about assimilation, nor does it make sense to develop an immigration policy without an assimilation policy. The United States has the most successful tradition of immigration in the history of the world for one basic reason: the triumph of what I have termed "patriotic assimilation"--the assimilation of immigrants as loyal members of the American body politic.

For more than two hundred years, immigrants to America and their children have been successfully assimilated into what has been called the American way of life. This civic or patriotic assimilation of immigrants into the American constitutional regime did not happen naturally. Patriotic assimilation was the end result of a sometimes explicit (and other times implicit) long-range vision formulated by America's leaders. From the days of George Washington continuing through the era of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and supported in the past decade by such public figures as Barbara Jordan, this strategic vision has helped to define immigration-assimilation policy by articulating two interconnected ideas: (1) welcoming immigrants and (2) assimilating those immigrants into the mainstream of American civic life.

George Washington wrote John Adams that he envisioned immigrants becoming "assimilated to our customs, measures, laws," and because of this, he predicted, native-born citizens and immigrants would "soon become one people." In the same vein, more than a century later Theodore Roosevelt stated, "The immigrant who comes here in good faith [and] becomes an American and assimilates himself to us . . . shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed or birthplace or origin. But that is predicated upon the man's becoming an American and nothing but an American. . . ."

In a similar manner, Roosevelt's chief political rival, President Woodrow Wilson, told immigrants at a citizenship ceremony, "I certainly would not be one even to suggest that a man cease to love the home of his birth and the nation of his origin--these things are very sacred and ought not to be put out of our hearts--but it is one thing to love the place where you were born and it is another to dedicate yourself to the place to which you go. You cannot dedicate yourself to America unless you become . . . with every purpose of your will thorough Americans. . . ."

Closer to our own time, in a 1995 New York Times oped entitled "The Americanization Ideal," the late Texas Democratic congresswoman Barbara Jordan wrote, "Immigration imposes mutual obligations. Those who choose to come here must embrace the common core of American civic culture," but the native-born must "assist them" in learning about America, and, at the same time, must oppose prejudice and "vigorously enforce" laws against discrimination.

In different ways, Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, and Jordan all advocated what I have called patriotic assimilation. Clearly, there are different types of assimilation. Economic assimilation implies that immigrants are doing well financially and joining the middle class. Linguistic assimilation means that newcomers are learning to speak English. Cultural assimilation could mean that immigrants are becoming absorbed (for better or worse) into the mainstream popular culture of twenty-first century American life. Although economic, linguistic, and cultural forms of assimilation are clearly significant, nothing is more important to the health of American democracy than the patriotic assimilation of the millions of immigrants who have come to our shores.

Patriotic assimilation does not mean giving up all of one's ethnic traditions, customs, cuisine, and birth language. It has nothing to do with the food one eats, the religion one practices, the affection one feels for the land of one's birth, or the languages a person speaks. Multiethnicity and ethnic subcultures have enriched America and have always been part of our past. Historically, the immigration saga has involved "give and take" between immigrants and the native-born. That is to say, immigrants have helped shape America even as this nation has Americanized them.

Patriotic assimilation occurs when a newcomer essentially adopts American civic values and the American heritage as his or her own.

This is what we advocate too. The most important element being that immigration is a privilege not a right and imposes certain obligations on the immigrant himself. But we'd welcome every healthy non-criminal willing to accept the obligations. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 20, 2003 6:55 PM
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