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Henry Olsen: Immigration, Citizenship, and America

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

Independence Day once celebrated a specific act: America’s separation from Great Britain. Today, we celebrate our way of life: the freedom and opportunity promised in the Declaration. Foremost among the reasons behind this change is the huge waves of immigration that have swept our land since the largely British-descended populace celebrated their centennial in 1876.

An American immigrant longs for freedom and is drawn to our land to satisfy that longing. The freedom he seeks differs: one wants freedom of worship, another like the Cuban, Hungarian, or Vietnamese fleeing Communism wants freedom of conscience; still another wants the freedom to make a better material life than they could in their native land. These new Americans can’t feel the same glory in the act of revolution that thrilled their Anglo neighbors whose ancestors won the War of Independence. But they can celebrate the virtue which inspired that act and which was politically enshrined by that act’s success—the virtue of freedom.

The American immigrant wants more, though, than to simply be left alone to pursue his private pursuits. He wants to be a citizen, to belong to this new country as fully and completely as he did to his old land. Indeed, for one fleeing lands whose ruling class deprived him of basic economic and social rights, belonging to America is a more complete attachment than he could ever have attained before. For in America, the immigrant is respected as an equal, an end unto himself, rather than as a means to some other’s end.

We commonly look at this process of becoming a citizen as one of the immigrant’s assimilation to dominant American norms. This is important, for as a nation founded on a creed rather than on birth or blood, America could not long endure unless the vast majority of its population believe in the basic tenants of the Revolution. But this view is incomplete, for it focuses on citizenship from the viewpoint of the native rather than that of the immigrant.

For the American immigrant, assimilation is the process by which the immigrant becomes accepted as part of the American community. That means that the immigrant or his child is viewed as coming from another community, but one who now belongs to the American community.

This transition is never easy. Native Americans have resisted and discriminated against newcomers for as long as we have had a republic. Immigrants always must earn their citizenship, through private acts of productivity and decency and, ultimately, though public acts of vying for and winning public office.

Aristotle in the Politics says “he is a citizen in the highest sense who shares in the honors of the state,” and this is no less true in America than it was in ancient Greece. Indeed, it is even more important in America than it was in ancient Greece, because American identity is intimately entwined with our system of republican government. Whether an immigrant is truly an American citizen, then, ultimately comes down to the question of whether a member of that immigrant’s group can be elected to a high office of public trust.

Thus, American Catholics could enjoy political victories as their co-religionists became mayors, governors, senators. But complete belonging only came when John Kennedy was elected to the presidency. Thus, American Jews were excited when Joe Lieberman became the first Jew to be nominated to run on a major party’s presidential ticket. For members of these groups, these acts meant that they had truly arrived, that had finally become Americans in the highest sense.

This sentiment animates even long-resident groups who feel out of step with the American political class. Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976 thrilled Southerners, as he was the first Southerner to be elected president without first serving as someone else’s vice president since the Civil War. And Barack Obama’s election in 2008 so excited African-Americans that they turned out in record numbers to ensure that one of their own sat in the Oval Office. Their victories gave all members of their groups the sense that they were, finally, fully American.

This process seems so natural that it’s worth recalling just how exceptional it is. European nations, based as they are on a community of blood rather than one of ideas, find it difficult to make immigrants full citizens. It’s impossible to think of a German of Turkish descent or a Swede from Bosnia or Kurdistan becoming prime minister. Even France, a nation that proclaims its fidelity to the international ideals of libertéégalitéfraternité, finds it difficult to make immigrants full citizens. When Nicolas Sarkozy ran for president of France, the fact that he is descended from Hungarian immigrants was an issue; was he truly French?

The recent gubernatorial nomination of Nikki Haley, daughter of Indian Sikhs, in South Carolina shows that this American phenomenon of arrival, aspiration, and achievement continues apace. As we celebrate our nation and our republic this weekend, let us also celebrate the political miracle that our revolution has wrought. And let us celebrate the foundation of American citizenship that makes that miracle possible, the principle of individual freedom that flows from the Declaration’s assertion “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Image by Edu-Tourist.

Herny Olsen is vice president and director of the National Research Initiative at AEI.

Cross-posted at the Enterprise Blog.