Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Reach him at bboychuk@city-journal.org.

Viewpoints: Assimilation shouldn't be an afterthought

Published: Saturday, Apr. 27, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11A
Last Modified: Monday, Jun. 3, 2013 - 7:55 am

Congress is debating whether comprehensive immigration reform should include a "path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States for years, or even decades. But what kind of citizens would they be? For that matter, what kind of citizens are we making now?

Leave aside the defects of the "Gang of Eight's" 844-page immigration reform bill – yes, of course it's amnesty; the proposed border security and e-Verify provisions are farcical; the fines and penalties are weak; the new guest-worker visa program would be an affront to free-market principles. But, hey, it's a start.

Conspicuously absent from the bill, however, is the word "assimilation." It appears nowhere in the legislation or in the 19-page outline of the plan that Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., released a couple of weeks ago.

The closest they come is with a section to create a "Task Force on New Americans," which would have the vague mission of making a "coordinated Federal program and policy response to immigrant integration issues," covering everything from "access to youth and adult education programming" and "health care policy" to "community development challenges." Not exactly stirring stuff. It's more of an afterthought, really.

Making citizens is hard work. It must not be taken for granted. It cannot be treated lightly. It needs to be at the forefront of any immigration reform. But people forget, so we require periodic reminders.

Assimilation came up during the last great legislative brouhaha over immigration in 2006. I remember it well, as I was writing editorials for a sizable daily paper serving Inland Southern California at the time. One lady sent an angry letter upbraiding us for an editorial that made passing reference to patriotic assimilation. Did we seriously mean to imply, she wrote indignantly, "unwillingness to assimilate makes immigrants unworthy of citizenship"?

Yes, as a matter of fact we did. Not only did we imply as much, we later came right out and said it: Assimilation and good citizenship are indivisible. Or they ought to be, anyway.

America's founders understood this. Alexander Hamilton – an immigrant himself – said the goal of any naturalization policy should be "to enable aliens to get rid of foreign and acquire American attachments." To this day, we expect new citizens to swear an oath to "absolutely and entirely renounce" any foreign loyalties.

But a new analysis from the Hudson Institute comes as a bracing admonition. The report by political scientist John Fonte and demographer Althea Nagai debunks the conventional wisdom about assimilation of newcomers using data from the Harris Interactive Survey. In it, they find that "a large 'patriotic gap' exists between native-born citizens and immigrant citizens on issues of patriotic attachment and civic knowledge."

For example, 81 percent of native-born Americans surveyed said public schools should focus on teaching American citizenship rather than ethnic pride, compared with 50 percent of naturalized citizens. Similarly, 82 percent of native-born Americans said it is "very important for the future of the American political system that all citizens understand English," compared with 59 percent of immigrant citizens who thought likewise.

As for what might explain the gap, Fonte and Nagai point out that since the 1970s, "American elites have altered our 'de-facto assimilation policy' from Americanization (or patriotic integration) to a multiculturalism that emphasizes ethnic group consciousness at the expense of American common culture."

Their conclusion: "There can be no comprehensive immigration reform without comprehensive assimilation reform." True enough. But assimilation is almost exclusively purely the product of education. We do a terrible job of it.

Consider the Tsarnaev brothers, the Chechen émigrés implicated in the Boston Marathon bombings this month. CNN called their lives "an immigrant journey that went off track." And how! What we see in their story is a total failure of assimilation. The dead older brother, Tamerlan, was wholly uninterested in American life. "I don't have a single American friend," he told photographer Johannes Hirn in 2010. "I don't understand them."

But Dzhokhar offers the more disturbing case. News reports describe the surviving younger brother as a party-going stoner, "like a normal American kid," who came under the sway of his fundamentalist brother. A few stories mention that he attended high school at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, where he read, among other things, Howard Zinn's stridently left-wing "A People's History of the United States."

In other words, he was just another young nihilist, indoctrinated in the fashionable anti-American propaganda of the day. If that isn't an indictment of our way of assimilation in 2013, nothing is.

What we need more than anything is an unapologetic assimilationist ethos for all newcomers – less Zinn, more Hamilton. Expecting naturalized citizens to actually know something about the language, culture – beyond where to score good pot, I mean – and principles of their adopted country shouldn't be controversial.

But what we have now are too many people apologizing for America. Until we remedy that, no immigration reform – no matter how "comprehensive" – will ever succeed.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Reach him at bboychuk@city-journal.org.

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