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What I’ve learned as a native-born ‘dreamer’: We are a nation of assimilated immigrants

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I am a native-born dreamer and here is what I have come to learn about immigration reform.

Part I. Native dreamer’s journey

I was born in the Bronx to a West Indian “immigrant.” My dad was actually a U.S. citizen because he was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, yet he had the immigrant experience of coming to the mainland. My mom was born in Harlem.

{mosads}I grew up and had the opportunity to go to private and public school and to mix with just about every race and ethnicity that populates New York City. In public school, I was a part of a school-chum “posse” that included Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and black Americans. We came in all racial shades of the spectrum, from lily white to ebony black. We were not “color blind.” We recognized the richness of the ethnic baggage that we carried and we also teased one another (as most elementary kids do) incessantly. In fact, I received and asserted the most politically incorrect, racially and ethnically laced jokes and insults that might get one arrested for hate crimes today.


What I learned from this experience was that we all had our own histories and “baggage” but, at the end of the day, we got along and became the best of friends because we were all proud Americans who looked past our differences as individuals.

Part II. Native-born’s obsession with immigration and assimilation

For most of my adult life (I’ll be 50 on March 5) I have been deeply concerned about immigration and, even more so, about American assimilation. I was a teenager when the 1986 amnesty bill was signed into law by Ronald Reagan. More than that, my organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), led by my deceased father and civil rights icon Roy Innis, was one of the organizations that lobbied heavily for the bill and became a QDE (Qualified Designated Entity) upon its passage. QDEs were private-sector organizations that the federal government empowered to help process the applications of millions of people to screen and to pre-qualify them for status.

What I learned as a volunteer for the process, program and bill was that among the missing components was the demand that aliens have the moral responsibility to assimilate into the American culture. Progressives are fond of asserting that America is a “nation of immigrants.” What they often miss is that, yes, we are a nation of immigrants but, traditionally, we are a nation of ASSIMILATED immigrants. For more than two centuries, newcomers have had to assimilate to the dominant culture and language of America’s mostly WASP founders. African-American slaves did it the hard way, but others had less severe yet rigorously imposed demands to assimilate. Many of these ethnic communities of newcomers also self-imposed the moral imperative of assimilation.

I am fond of remembering my father’s best friend, Joseph Lovece, an Italian-American. Joe called himself American-Italian, because America came first. He grew up in 1930s Harlem with his grandfather living in the family household; his grandfather could not speak much English but he always insisted that little Joey “speeka dee English only!” when Joe tried to communicate with his grandfather in Italian. Joe’s grandfather did this because he knew that, for his grandchildren to be successful in his new country, they would have to become “good Americans.”

People such as Joe’s grandfather knew America was an exceptional place, where anyone could aspire to their dreams — and that meant assimilating, becoming an American, first and foremost.

This community self-imposition and the larger nation’s demand of assimilation largely has been lost. Since the turbulent 1960s, ”assimilation” has become a dirty word. The concept itself is challenged as racist. Simultaneously, assimilation advocates became lazy, afraid, or oblivious to the civic imperative to cajole assimilation among immigrants. Simultaneously, the progressive wing of one of our major political parties has become obsessed with identity politics that is contrary to the meaning of our nation’s seal, “E Pluribus Unum” (Latin for “Out of many, One”).

These developments are all recipes for the civic disaster we have today in America, where native-born and immigrant alike cannot successfully name the three branches of government, assert how many states there are in the union, or even feel compelled to stand proudly when the flag is raised. Worse than that, everyday Americans are being divided and subdivided into ethnic, gender and sexual-orientation warring camps. This is something the Founding Fathers would dread. This is something I saw developing in my lifetime. This phenomenon is something I have fought against.

Part III. ‘America first’ immigration reform

In 2012 and 2013, while leading one of the largest Tea Party organizations at the time, we crafted what can be called an “America First” set of principles for immigration reform. These principles were reviewed and approved by a diverse group of leaders within the conservative movement, from pro-immigration Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) to the more circumspect House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

More importantly, when these principles were released, nearly 100,000 Tea Party activists signed on to and supported our immigration principles that included a pathway for “Dreamers” to become legal. The Tea Party  was one of the groups that were a part of Sen. Rubio’s “kitchen cabinet” on immigration when he was a part of the “Gang of Eight” trying to pass an immigration bill in 2013. We eventually broke away from Rubio when we felt that the bill in play failed to address the concerns many within the movement had.

Today, I am part of a Nevada-based group of concerned leaders, the NevadansCAN network, that has come up with an updated plan that largely reflects the vision of the original Tea Party plan, with some additions.

Part IV. The pathway to E pluribus unum

The American people are the most generous people on Earth. When one considers immigration and citizenship standards, the United States has one of the most liberal standards in the world. Among developed economies, only the United States and Canada have birthright citizenship. The key component that has made America stronger is the civic imperative of assimilation.

If we are to not become the “Dis-United States of America,” we must recapture, revitalize that critical moral, civic and pragmatic imperative. A sneak peek into our future, if we don’t, is happening right before our eyes — in many parts of Europe, which is failing miserably to assimilate migrants of their own countries. The negative ramifications are obvious: violent crime spikes, no-go zones in cities for police and other “outsiders,” terrorist attacks, etc. This negative phenomenon is a more profound existential threat of Western civilization than communism would ever prove to be.

This is why it is so important to control our borders, to combat and to end the false characterization of America by the political left as a hateful, unkind place. Immigrants should be coming to America legally and believe, as Joe Lovece’s grandfather did, that America is exceptional. They should want to assimilate, to be part of the opportunities and bounties that America offers.

Immigration should not be based on a lottery or on “chain” migration, but be based on the love of America and our institutions that have made our country the greatest nation on Earth. Immigration should be based on the pride of being an American, contributing to America and fostering the American dream.

America will remain great with more immigrants like my father and his good friend Joe Lovece’s grandfather. They knew the only way to fulfill their dreams was by becoming an American.

Niger Innis is the national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a 75-year-old civil rights organization, and a co-founder of the NevadansCAN Network, a grassroots network of concerned Nevada citizen-activists.

Tags American culture Bob Goodlatte Cultural assimilation Demography Immigration Jeff Sessions Marco Rubio

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