It is therefore a bit surprising that the current debate over immigration reform has practically ignored the topic of assimilation. Aside from a general, almost formalistic mention here or there of the need for undocumented immigrants who legalize to learn English and civics, a serious discussion of assimilation has yet to take place.
When President George W. Bush championed immigration reform, by contrast, assimilation was a central component of his plan. Likewise, the bipartisan immigration bill introduced by Senator Edward Kennedy back in 2007 had an entire section devoted to it, which mandated, among other things, that the U.S. Office of Citizenship promote the “patriotic integration of prospective citizens, into (1) American common values and traditions, including an understanding of American history and the principles of the Constitution of the United States; and (2) civic traditions of the United States, including the Pledge of Allegiance, respect for the flag of the United States, and voting in public elections.”
Yet the blueprint announced by the so-called "gang of eight" in the Senate did not include assimilation as one of its basic pillars. And the proposal outlined by President Obama recently in Las Vegas merely makes an ambiguous reference to “promot[ing] earned citizenship and efforts to integrate immigrants into their new American communities linguistically, civically, and economically,” which sounds more like a new entitlement program than an initiative to encourage patriotism and love of country.
The most problematic disregard for assimilation, however, comes from those who support providing legal status to undocumented immigrants, but not a path to citizenship. If undocumented immigrants who are legalized are not given at least some opportunity to become full-fledged citizens, reform proponents run the risk of creating a community of millions of foreign-born individuals who feel sidelined and rejected by society.
This is not to say that these immigrants should be given a special or immediate path to citizenship. We can make this path lengthier and more demanding in recognition of the simple fact that they have broken the law. But I believe that, however distant, the door to citizenship should remain open.
Recent studies by the University of Oxford’s Center on Migration, Policy and Society confirm the continuing perils of creating dual societies within states, as exemplified by the grave social conflicts some Western European countries have endured due to a chronic ineffectiveness in assimilating immigrants.
A more crucial point is that disallowing undocumented immigrants any possibility of becoming citizens would be fundamentally un-American. Our nation was founded on the belief that all who live and are part of our republic, regardless of origin, must be equal and enjoy the same rights. My own family immigrated to the U.S. from Sri Lanka when I was a wee ten-year old. I recall hearing my parents speak about America from the time I was five or six — the country where anyone willing to work hard, sacrifice and abide by the law had the opportunity to pursue a life of promise. I have found that to be true, and in pursuit of that dream I fell in love with America. Last year, twenty-two years after entering this country, I finally became a citizen. Sitting in a Brooklyn courtroom with about 200 other people I was surprised to be fighting back tears of joy. One would think that two decades of growing up in America would lessen the significance, but it only served as a reminder of the absolute privilege and blessing of living in the United States. As I looked around the room at my freshly minted fellow citizens of various ethnicities and ages, I wondered about the journey each had taken on the road to citizenship.
President Reagan understood this better than most, when he reminisced about a letter he had received from a man just before leaving office. He said: “I don’t know why he chose to write it, but I’m glad he did. He wrote that you can go to live in France, but you can’t become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Italy, but you can’t become a German, an Italian. He went through Turkey, Greece, Japan and other countries. But he said anyone, from any corner of the world, can come to live in the United States and become an American.”
As Congress considers immigration reform, members of both parties need to pay more attention to how we ensure that the eleven million undocumented immigrants we end up bringing out of the shadows become and feel fully American.
Boteju is executive director of the American Principles Project.