Robert P. George: How do immigrants become Americans?

Published Date: February 6, 2015 | Topics: Philosophy, Politics and Current Affairs

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How do immigrants become Americans?

It goes beyond becoming a citizen, and even formally signing on with the American political creed. The key ingredient is something I know intimately from my own family’s experience, namely, gratitude. It is, typically, an immigrant’s feelings of gratitude to America for the liberty, security, and opportunity our nation affords him and his family that leads to his appreciation of the ideals and institutions of American cultural, economic, and civic life.

From this appreciation comes an immigrant’s belief in the goodness of American ideals and the value of the constitutional structures and institutions by which they are effectuated. And from this belief arises his aspiration to become a citizen together with his willingness to shoulder the responsibilities of citizenship and even to make great sacrifices for the nation — his nation — should it come to that.

My own immigrant grandfathers came to the United States a little more than a hundred years ago. Like most immigrants, 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. 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 and saved enough money to start a little grocery store, which 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 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 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.

I suspect that as I tell these stories, many readers are thinking of their grandparents or great-grandparents. The amazing and wonderful thing is that a family story like mine of immigrant ancestors becoming Americans 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 are also part of our heritage.)

I believe that immigration has been a great strength for America and that it will continue to be so. I certainly hope that immigrants will continue to want to be Americans. Does this mean that I reject what is known as “multiculturalism?

It depends. I certainly see no need to encourage immigrants to abandon their customs, traditions, and ethnic or religious identities; on the contrary, I think it is good for families, and good for America, for immigrants to honor their ethnic customs and identities and pass them along to the next generation. Immigrants have always done this, and it is fine and good — a source of strength. Of course, this is to be distinguished from an ideology that promotes the rejection of a primary and central political allegiance to the United States and its ideals and institutions. And it is certainly to be distinguished from any ideology that denies the fundamental goodness of America’s principles of political and civil liberty.

Now, 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 dint of 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. A culture of entitlement ends up reinforcing an attitude that impedes the gratitude that enables immigrants to become Americans.

As I said, 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 the dignity of the human being, in all stages and conditions of life; 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.

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. But in this democratic nation of immigrants in which “We the People” have the privilege and responsibility of governing ourselves, it is every citizen’s business.

And it is certainly the special business of institutions of higher learning. For such institutions, civic education — education that advances the understanding of our nation’s constitutional principles and institutions — is a high calling and a solemn obligation. If, as James Madison said, “only a well-educated people can be permanently a free people,” then civic education is vital to the success of the grand experiment in ordered liberty that Madison and the other founding fathers bequeathed to us and our posterity.

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