The question is: How do immigrants become Americans? Now, I cannot claim any expertise on questions of immigration policy. I have not explored the vast bodies of literature in sociology, political science, history, and economics devoted to questions of immigration in the United States. Nor have I participated in public debates over immigration policy or expressed opinions on any of the range of proposals pertaining to immigration now being debated in American civic life. This is one area of controversy into which I have so far managed not to wander (or, as my wife might put it, stumble), so I hope you will forgive me for not wandering (or stumbling) into it now.
Having published my views regarding just about every other neuralgia-inducing issue in contemporary American politics in the pages of the Wall Street Journal , Washington Post, New York Times, and in First Things ¯and having mountains of hate mail to prove it¯I’ll continue to refrain, at least for the time being, from expressing or even developing opinions about proposals for immigration moratoriums, guest worker programs, national identification cards, fences, ditches, deploying military personnel to secure the borders, and so forth.
I will say this, however. Illegal immigration is a potentially explosive issue in American politics¯one that could go from simmering to boiling rapidly in the context of a national election. Americans don’t like illegal anything¯including illegal immigration¯and a great many Americans want something to be done about it. The failure of effective enforcement of immigration laws undermines people’s sense of security, especially after the attacks of September 11th, and perhaps even more importantly offends people’s sense of fairness.
Illegal immigration is an issue¯a rare one¯on which the Republican Party is vulnerable to the possibility of a Democratic presidential candidate effectively presenting himself or herself to the American electorate as the protector of national security and the defender of law and order. Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico¯a man who possesses the additional advantage of a Latino ethnic heritage¯could do just that. He is an astute politician who knows that public distress about illegal immigration has nothing to do with bigotry or hostility to immigrants or even to immigration and everything to do with questions of security and fairness. If Republicans fail over the next two years to develop and implement a policy on illegal immigration that effectively deals with the concerns of our people, it will be at their electoral peril.
Well, I’ve now said all I will say about that. Let me get right to the question I was invited to consider. How do immigrants become Americans? Well, I’ve thought about it, and I think I have the answer. The key ingredient is gratitude . It all begins with gratitude. An immigrant’s feelings of gratitude to America for the liberty, security, and opportunity our nation affords him and his family is what leads to his appreciation of the ideals and institutions of American cultural, economic, and civic life. From this appreciation comes his belief in the goodness of American ideals and the value of the institutions by which they are effectuated. And from this belief arises his aspiration to become an American citizen together with his willingness to shoulder the responsibilities of citizenship and even to make great sacrifices for the nation, should it come to that.
My own immigrant grandfathers came to the United States a little over a hundred years ago. Like most immigrants then and now, they were not drawn here by any abstract belief in the superiority of the American political system. My father’s father came from Syria fleeing oppression visited upon him and his family as members of a relatively small ethnic and religious minority group in that troubled country. My mother’s father came to escape the poverty of southern Italy. They both worked on the railroads and in the mines.
My maternal grandfather settled in West Virginia, where there was a small Italian immigrant community in Clarksburg, Fairmont, and Morgantown¯a trio of cities along the Monongahela River a little south of the Pennsylvania border. He was able to save enough money to start a little grocery store, which soon became a flourishing business. My paternal grandfather spent his entire life as a laborer. He died of emphysema, no doubt as a result of the pulmonary health hazards of coal mining in those days. Both men were exceedingly grateful for what America made possible for them and their families.
Their gratitude was not diminished when times got hard¯as they did for all Americans¯in the Great Depression. Although both my grandfathers encountered ethnic prejudice, they viewed this as an aberration¯a failure of some Americans to live up to the nation’s ideals. It did not dawn on them to blame the bad behavior of some Americans on America itself. On the contrary, America in their eyes was a land of unsurpassed blessing. It was a nation of which they were proud and happy to become citizens. And even before they became citizens they had become patriots¯men who deeply appreciated what America is and what she stands for.
Like so many other immigrants, my immigrant grandparents particularly appreciated the opportunities that America made available to their children. My father’s father had a sister¯she too was an immigrant¯who had a son named John Solomon who wanted to be a lawyer. He finished college and then completed law school at West Virginia University. The law school in those days was located on University Avenue in Morgantown near the center of the campus. It was a grand building that one entered by walking up a broad set of stairs. When my cousin John’s mother¯we knew her as Halte Gemile¯came to attend her son’s graduation ceremony, she stopped to kiss each step as she ascended those stairs. Such was her gratitude. Of course, her son was thoroughly embarrassed by this display. My father, who was there, tells me that his cousin John turned to his mother at about the fourth step and pleaded: "Please mom, you’re acting like an immigrant." Indeed, she was.
I talked a moment ago about how gratitude for liberty, security, and opportunity leads immigrants to an appreciation of American ideals and institutions, and in turn gives rise to an aspiration to American citizenship and a willingness to bear its responsibilities and even to make great sacrifices. Four of my paternal grandparents’ five sons were drafted into the U.S. military to serve in the Second World War. My maternal grandparents’ only son was also drafted. All of these men served in combat and returned with decorations. Their immigrant parents were immensely proud of them¯proud of them precisely because they fought for America and for what America stands for.
They considered that their sons were fighting for their country¯not for a country in which they were resident aliens or guests. They were fighting for a country that was not only great, but good. A country whose ideals were noble. A country for which they were immensely grateful¯and not merely because it provided a haven from poverty and oppression. A country whose principles they believed in.
When their boys were fighting, they knew that it was entirely possible¯all-too-possible¯that ultimately they would be called upon to give what Lincoln at Gettysburg described as the "last full measure of devotion." You can imagine the anxiety this would cause in an Italian family whose one and only son had been sent into the brutal combat of the Pacific theatre. But however much sleep was lost as a result of fear and even dread, they remained proud that their son was fighting for their country, for his country, for America. Nor did the fact that Italy under fascist rule was on the other side of the conflict give them so much as a moment’s pause. The gratitude leading to appreciation leading to the conviction and commitment at the heart of true American patriotism left them in no doubt as to their loyalty.
I have the sense that my uncles’ service to the nation at a time of peril was not only an expression of their Americanism, and the Americanism of their immigrant parents, it was a profound confirmation and ratification of it. If they had any doubts in their own minds about whether they were truly and fully Americans¯as American as their fellow citizens whose ancestors had landed here on the Mayflower¯military service erased those doubts. I dare say that the same was true, as has always been true, just in case any native-born citizens had any doubts about whether their immigrant neighbors really were Americans. The willingness of immigrants and their children to take the risks and, in many, many, many cases to be counted among the fallen, leaves the question of allegiance and American identity in no doubt.
Of course, some Protestant Americans wondered whether non-Protestants¯and especially Catholics¯could truly become Americans. They were concerned that hierarchical and non-democratic forms of church governance would hinder the ability of non-Protestant immigrants to appreciate and fully give their allegiance to democratic institutions and principles of civic life. Some even believed that Catholic immigrants would have to be de-Catholicized by the public school system and other mechanisms in order to become patriotic Americans.
The natural and understandable Catholic reaction to this¯the establishment of Catholic parochial schools across the country¯only heightened Protestant worries. But part of what eventually made these worries go away was the record of service and heroism of Catholic and other non-Protestant soldiers (including countless products of parochial schools) fighting for democracy and against authoritarian regimes and totalitarian ideologies in the First and especially the Second World War. Catholics saw no contradiction between their faith and their allegiance to the United States of America. On the contrary, religious commitment tended to support patriotic conviction. Faithful Catholics wanted to be, and not merely to be seen to be¯though that, too¯the very best of good American citizens. And as they saw and see it, that doesn’t require the slightest dilution of their Catholic faith.
The story of my family is the story of countless other families. There are many permutations of the story, but they are permutations of the same story. The amazing and wonderful thing is that a family story like mine of immigrant ancestors becoming Americans, sharing in the blessings of American life, and taking upon themselves their share of the nation’s burdens, is not the exception; it is the norm. Of course, the story of Africans brought to America as slaves and then subjected to segregation and discrimination even after slavery was abolished is a radically different one¯a story of injustice and a stain upon our nation’s history. Yet the great efforts to right these wrongs and live up to our national ideals of liberty and justice for all are also part of our American heritage.
But now let me turn to the other side of the coin. As we know all too well, today not all immigrants become Americans or even want to become Americans. An ideology of multiculturalism¯one that is fiercely promoted by opinion-shaping elites in many sectors of our society¯has been embraced by some immigrants and will likely be embraced by many more. This is not simply a matter of hanging onto customs, traditions, and ethnic or religious identities and passing them on to the next generation. Immigrants have always done this, and it is fine and good¯a source of strength for our nation.
Rather, it is a matter of rejecting the idea of a primary and central political allegiance to the United States and its ideals and institutions. Often this rejection is rooted in a denial of the goodness of America and even an assertion of America’s wickedness. Sometimes it manifests itself in a view of American history as a history of nothing but racism, exploitation, chauvinism, abuse, imperialism, and other injustices. For people who view things this way, the United States is hardly an object of gratitude. On the contrary, it is the sinner, the debtor, which must abase itself before the world, make amends, and give recompense. It is not owed gratitude or allegiance; it owes . Putative victims of its oppression and their descendants are entitled to feast from its bounty with no gratitude or loyalty required in return.
If, as I have argued, it is gratitude that launches immigrants on the path to becoming Americans, it is attitude that impedes and prevents immigrants from embarking on the journey. Grateful immigrants become Americans; immigrants with attitude do not. What do I mean by attitude? I mean what the kids mean: a bad attitude. An attitude of hostility to America and her principles. An attitude of superiority. An attitude of entitlement. An attitude promoted, as I say, by influential people in education, journalism, and even government. An attitude abetted by misguided policies, such as forms of bilingualism that have the effect¯though I am not claiming they all do ("bilingualism" means different things)¯of discouraging mainly Latino young people from fully mastering the English language. Policies that turn the ideal of pluralism into an attack on national unity and common bonds. Policies that foster a culture of entitlement¯one where all the emphasis on is on rights, and none is on responsibilities; one in which assistance provided by states or the federal government to those in need is perceived not as a manifestation of the generosity of the American people, but as payment (inevitably said to be meager and inadequate) on a debt created by the allegedly predatory and exploitative acts of previous generations of Americans.
Where a culture of opportunity flourishes, immigrants will feel, as my grandparents felt, gratitude for the opportunities they are afforded to lift themselves up, and make a better life for their children, by hard work and determination to succeed. However, it appears to be a brute fact of human psychology that where a culture of entitlement prevails, gratitude even for charitable assistance will not emerge. In part, of course, this is to be explained by the fact that upward social mobility is dampened in circumstances of a culture of entitlement. This is the phenomenon known as welfare dependency.
I observed its soul-destroying effects on many non-immigrant families in West Virginia as I was growing up. You see, dependency is an equal opportunity soul destroyer. And this, in turn, leads to resentment as people persuade themselves that the reason they are not getting ahead is that those who are already better off are cheating or manipulating the system to hold down people at the bottom of the ladder (who are dependent on entitlements). So the culture of entitlement ends up reinforcing the attitude that impedes the gratitude that enables immigrants to become Americans.
I want immigrants to become Americans. I want them to believe in American ideals and institutions. I want them to "hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I want them to believe, as I believe, in limited government, republican democracy, equality of opportunity, morally ordered liberty, private property, economic freedom, and the rule of law. I want them to believe in these ideals and principles not because they are ours, but because they are noble and good and true. They honor the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of all human beings. They call forth from us the best that we are capable of. They ennoble us.
Our efforts to live up to these truths, despite our failures and imperfections, have made us a great people, a force for freedom and justice in the world, an astonishingly prosperous nation. It is little wonder that America is, as it always has been, a magnet for people from every land who seek a better life.
But the transmission of American ideals to immigrants and, indeed, to anyone, including new generations of native born Americans, depends on the maintenance of a culture in which these ideals flourish. The maintenance of such a culture is a complicated business¯one with many dimensions. I have already talked about how social welfare and other policies, if unsound, can undermine these ideals. I have also mentioned the emergence of ideologies, flourishing in elite sectors of American culture, which weaken them. These ideologies must be taken seriously and confronted. This is the great intellectual and pedagogical mission before us.
The task is thrust upon us by what can only be described as a massive loss of faith in the goodness of America and her traditional beliefs among opinion-leaders in key positions of influence. Not everything that does business under the label "multiculturalism" is bad, but much of it is. Much of it functions to discourage patriotism and national unity. Much of it fosters attitude and impedes the gratitude that we have always relied on to put immigrants on the path to becoming Americans.
(Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a member of the F IRST T HINGS editorial board. The above reflection was delivered at a conference of the Philanthropy Roundtable. Click here to email the author about this item.)
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