Rally round the flag: demonstrators in New York on April 10 protest House immigration bill. © Andrew Gombert /epa/Corbis
Rally round the flag: demonstrators in New York on April 10 protest House immigration bill. © Andrew Gombert /epa/Corbis

E Pluribus Unum

Immigration policy is a complex topic that perennially brings up questions about the meaning of assimilation, the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship, and the penalties (or lack thereof) for those arriving here without proper paperwork to fill jobs that native-born Americans do not want.
June 1, 2006
 

The protesters were well organized and well prepared. They had long anticipated the rancorous debate on immigration reform in Congress this spring. Hundreds of thousands of predominantly Hispanic and Latino immigrants dressed in white and filled the streets of Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington, and any number of smaller towns across the country in April. They skipped work and cut school to make their feelings known about the controversial bills lurching their way through the halls of Congress.

The organizers got their first whiff of the hot winds blowing when H.R. 4437, the "Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005," was offered by Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner last fall. The bill, which passed the House in December, calls for the construction of more than 700 miles of fencing along the border with Mexico, as well as a study of the feasibility of constructing a similar barrier between the U.S. and Canada. Considered draconian in some quarters, H.R. 4437 would also make a first conviction for driving while intoxicated a deportable offense for undocumented immigrants. It would broaden the definition of "alien smuggling" to include churches, employers, family members, and other advocates who assist undocumented immigrants.

While the bill was being considered on the floor of the House, members tacked on other controversial amendments. One would make English the official language of the United States; another would end birthright citizenship--the extension of automatic U.S. citizenship to children born here, regardless of their parents' immigration status.

Countering the House bill, Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain offered a more moderate, bipartisan plan for reform that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented residents, while Senators John Cornyn of Texas and John Kyl of Arizona offered yet another version of reform, one that refused the opportunity for permanent residence to temporary workers and added mandatory return program for migrants already here illegally. Ultimately, an attempt at compromise among these various plans stalled in April. On the first day of May, hundreds of thousands of marchers again took to the streets in dozens of cities, declaring a national boycott of work, school, and shopping to demonstrate the economic clout of immigrants. Plants closed, construction sites were silent, restaurants sat empty. More protests are planned for the summer, though it is not clear whether the matter will be taken up by Congress again before the midterm elections this fall.

Wide-ranging policy debates on immigration are nothing new, according to Noah Pickus, the associate director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke. Immigration policy is a complex topic that perennially brings up questions about the meaning of assimilation, the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship, and the penalties (or lack thereof) for those arriving here without proper paperwork to fill jobs that native-born Americans do not want. In an op-ed piece for the Raleigh News & Observer last fall, Pickus wrote, "For the past twenty years, the immigration and citizenship landscape has been characterized by wild swings between emotionally fraught, divisive positions and radical proposals: Deport all illegal aliens or offer them amnesty; slash social benefits for immigrants or increase them substantially; build day-labor centers or give a wink and nudge to the presence of illegal workers."

In a new book, True Faith and Allegiance: Immigration and American Civic Nationalism (Princeton University Press), Pickus takes the long view, offering a reflective journey through the many iterations of this country's immigration policies. On the more welcoming side of the question, he notes, George Washington once wrote that America was "open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions." At the same time, others in the Continental Congress feared that promises of easy land ownership and wealth accumulation in the new nation would bring in "undesirables." Without rigorous limits on immigration and a clear process of naturalization, the nation would soon be at risk of developing a class of indigent dependents, they said.

Now the stakes are arguably much higher. Since 9/11, America's desire to monitor the comings and goings of potential terrorists is at odds with its simultaneous appetite for inexpensive foreign labor. In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush signaled the next round of debate by floating his idea of a guest-worker program, while also calling for stronger immigration enforcement and border protection. "We hear claims that immigrants are somehow bad for the economy--even though this economy could not function without them," the president said.

Today it is impossible to miss the extent to which immigrants fuel the nation's economic engine: as consumers, as well as workers. In 1990 the U.S. Census recorded the largest number of foreign-born residents ever documented in American history. Among the 19.7 million immigrants on record that year, more than twice as many nationalities were represented as had been present during the country's last major wave of immigration in the 1920s. The traditional "gateway" states of California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas initially received the majority of these newcomers. But by the next census, in 2000, immigration had spread more evenly across the nation. Up by another 56 percent in a single decade, the number of foreign-born residents in the U.S. at the turn of the twenty-first century was 31.1 million out of a total of 281.4 million residents.

More than halfway into the first decade of the twenty-first century, most of us witness the demographic changes daily--in the workplace, on the news, at dual-language ATM machines, and in things as simple as the variety of foods available on local menus and in grocery stores. Though Spanish-speaking immigrants top the list in sheer numbers in many regions, the U.S. is a destination for hundreds of ethnic groups. In new gateway states like North Carolina, students coming into public-school classrooms speak as many as 200 different languages and dialects.

Projections for the future are even more striking. One of the nation's leading analysts of consumer trends, Walker Smith, president of the marketing firm Yankelovich Inc., suggested in a recent speech that, by 2040, America will be the second-largest Hispanic nation in the world, second only to Mexico. "And by 2050, non-Hispanic Caucasians will be a minority group in this country," Smith said, noting that savvy marketers are already paying close attention. Crayon manufacturer Binney and Smith has introduced a new version of their most famous product. Crayola "Multicultural Crayons" pledge that "an assortment of skin hues gives children a realistic palette to color their world."

Waiting to go: outside Tijuana, Mexican men and boys prepare to illegally cross the border into the U.S.

Waiting to go: outside Tijuana, Mexican men and boys prepare to illegally cross the border into the U.S.. © Danny Lehman/Corbis

Even as corporations are attending to these demographic shifts and planning their marketing strategies accordingly, most citizens are not well informed about the reasons people are moving to this country and the bureaucratic challenges involved in pursuing citizenship.

"Everyone has an opinion about immigration, but not many people I know understand anything about it," says Melinda Wiggins M.T.S. '94 and longtime executive director of Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), a nonprofit organization that grew out of early service-learning projects conducted by Duke students with migrant workers in Florida and North Carolina in the 1980s and '90s. Now housed at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, SAF is a nationwide program that engages students in organizing and service activities to improve housing, health care, education, and working conditions for migrant agricultural workers.

"Most people don't really understand why people come to this country, what our immigration laws are like, who they prevent from coming in, who they allow in, and how difficult it is to get legal permanent residency--especially for poor workers from Mexico," Wiggins explains. "People say to me, 'They're coming in and taking our jobs. They are getting benefits and welfare and don't deserve it. They don't pay taxes. Their children shouldn't be allowed to go to school. Why don't they just learn English? Why don't they just get a green card?' "

Noah Pickus hears the same questions. On a recent public-radio talk show, Pickus agreed with an irate caller that illegal immigration is breaking the law, but he encouraged his listener to consider how Americans are complicit in the system. "A lot of people have been very happy to benefit from the presence of illegal immigrants--go to any restaurant, any kitchen in Durham, go to any construction site, and count the number of immigrants working there. We are not about to send these 11 million people out of the country. We've accepted the gift of immigrant labor, and that gift is going to stay here, it's not going to go home." Pickus is fond of quoting Swiss novelist Max Frisch, who once said of German guest workers, "We asked for workers, and we got people." People, Pickus notes, who come here for a variety of reasons, form attachments, and end up putting down roots.

Contrary to popular opinion, immigrants--legal and illegal--do, at the least, pay federal excise taxes, and many have government I.D. numbers in lieu of Social Security numbers, Pickus says, but the problem is that the majority of their tax dollars go to the federal government. Yet state and local taxpayers must pick up the tab for infrastructure enhancements--new schools, more language teachers, and other social and medical services. Pickus argues that comprehensive immigration reform should take this situation into account, perhaps by offering a federal chargeback to local governments hard hit by the influx of newcomers. He also favors a bigger federal investment in integrating immigrants into society through more readily available English instruction, more rigorous citizenship education, and greater clarity about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

"You go into any community--a country, a university, a club--and you know that there are rules, even if it's not written down," says Pickus. "You know what you have to give to get what you receive in return. In our immigration policies today, that bargain is very unclear. "

After giving the keynote address at a Kenan Institute dinner at the Washington Duke Inn last fall, Pickus says he was approached by the captain of the wait staff--a recent immigrant from South America. She told him that he was exactly right: Trying to conquer the maze of paperwork and regulations to achieve legal status in this country is an enormous and confusing challenge.

Pickus believes that it has become harder for immigrants to assimilate, in part because all of those organizations that used to shepherd newcomers into the fold--labor unions, civic clubs such as Kiwanis, and ethnic political machines--are much less vigorous today. Pickus' own grandfather, an Austrian immigrant, landed in Galveston, Texas, but was soon taken by train to Kansas City, where, the story goes, he was led to a voting booth, courtesy of the local Teddy Pendergast political machine. "His not being a citizen did not stop them from finding a way to get his vote counted," Pickus says. "It was years later that he actually formally became a citizen. It wasn't the textbook civics way of thinking about citizenship, but it worked for my grandfather."

"The single most important organizations today for incorporating immigrants are the evangelical churches," says Pickus. "They are civically engaged, partly because they want to save souls. They want to take a lot of Hispanic Catholics and make them evangelicals. So while a lot of liberal organizations are not engaged or they are engaged in a legal sense, other groups have fallen away, and there's a vacuum."

While some churches may welcome newcomers from across the border, there is also a profound streak of xenophobia in our culture toward immigrants whether they arrive legally or not. Gita Gulati-Partee '91, an organizational consultant, is the daughter of immigrants from India. Though she was born in North Carolina, she says she was often considered "other" by her grade-school teachers and some fellow students growing up. Reflecting on her work with marginalized groups, Gulati-Partee has come to the conclusion that knee-jerk fear and criticism of immigrants should be understood as a deeper conflict within ourselves as Americans that we need to resolve. "Maybe, deep down, we are in awe of immigrants--the initiative and courage they show to get here, their willingness to work hard against so many odds, their embodiment of the 'American dream.' Perhaps we feel inferior by comparison," she says.

Row upon row: migrant farm workers plant yellow squash on farm in rural North Carolina

Row upon row: migrant farm workers plant yellow squash on farm in rural North Carolina. © Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis

Today through her company, OpenSource Leadership Strategies, Gulati-Partee has assembled a multicultural team of leaders and facilitators. They work as partners with nonprofit organizations around the country who want their boards and staff to consider more fully, and tap representation from, the constituencies they serve, which often include recent immigrants and other minorities. From this vantage point, Gulati-Partee likens the process of assimilation to a fraternity hazing. "Whether it was the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, or the Chinese, it's as if the Americans who have been here longer seem to be saying, 'We've all been through this rite of passage as a group, and now it's our turn to initiate the newcomers.' "

The hazing metaphor is apt, says Duke sociology professor Suzanne Shanahan, who studies group identity, membership, behavior, and the interplay among various components of individual identity, including ethnicity, religion, and nationality. "The hazing process is about making a commitment to the group," she says. "It's the idea that you are going to subject yourself to ridiculous things to establish your solidarity, prove your willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the group, and to show loyalty. I think the way we treat immigrants is often like that."

At the same time, in examining when and where certain identities become more important to groups of people, Shanahan has seen a trend toward diminishing national allegiance among native-born Americans and residents of other highly developed nations. "Increasingly," she says, "it seems that identity and citizenship are decoupled. A person's national citizenship, political identity, and social/cultural identity were once tightly fitted, but today people have rights as human beings that transcend our citizenship rights. It makes the identity component of citizenship less salient."

The diminishing relevance of citizenship is also less salient in an increasingly globalized society where the divide continues to widen between rich and poor, Pickus says. "One of the ways in which we are coming apart as a nation is the extent to which those people with money and education are increasingly living lives separated from the rest of their countrymen and women. If I have a home in Tuscany and a bank account in Bonn and a consulting firm in Bangkok, what do I really care about what happens here?"

Pledging allegiance: nearly 10,000 people participate in one of the largest naturalization ceremonies  in U.S. history, in the Orange Bowl Stadium in 1984

Pledging allegiance: nearly 10,000 people participate in one of the largest naturalization ceremonies in U.S. history, in the Orange Bowl Stadium in 1984. © Bettmann/Corbis

Even college professors--who don't necessarily have a lot of money, but are part of an educated elite--may identify with their peers around the world more than they do with the people in the towns where they live and work, Pickus says.

"The challenge today," he writes in True Faith and Allegiance, "is to knot together a nation of nonjudgmental, middle-class citizens who are increasingly disconnected from one another and estranged from their poorer, racially diverse fellow citizens. The problem to be overcome is thus not active exclusion but passive neglect."

Americans should take their citizenship as seriously as the country expects immigrants to take it, says Shanahan. "Americans have tended through history only to talk about citizenship when we're worried about our borders or about diluting our genetic pool, but we don't have debates about our citizenship that are positive expressions of what it means to be American."

The time is ripe for change, Pickus says, and that's part of the reason he chose to write his book when he did. The Iraq war and the global tension between advocates of democratic pluralism and religious fundamentalism have focused renewed attention on the value of U.S. citizenship and the meaning of American nationhood, he says. "While this attention could lead to restrictive policies toward immigrants, it also opens the possibility of recasting the incorporation of immigrants as a sign of the strength of the American civic nation, rather than as a threat, a drain on resources, or an obligation better left to immigrants themselves."

Pickus has been dubbed "a militant moderate" in the immigration debate, and his opinions have found resonance in high places. He traveled to Washington at the end of last year to help brief Senate staff members for the immigration-reform debates. He is also a consultant to the Office of Citizenship within the Department of Homeland Security.

Though he says he recognizes the dangers of extreme civic nationalism that have found expression at various eras in global history, Pickus points to two similar moments of dramatic transition in U.S. history as sources of inspiration for positive change. In Lincoln's era, with a sorely wounded and divided country, he argues, the president had to make an impassioned call for a new national unity. Later, in the Progressive Era under Theodore Roosevelt, when a fragmented and localized agrarian economy was giving way to a more nationalized industrial economy, the country once again needed an infusion of positive national identity to survive the difficult transition. "What Lincoln and Roosevelt had to do was create a sense that we were actually all one nation [at a time] when people only thought of themselves as Westerners or Virginians or whatever it might be."

Pickus believes our sense of civic pride and nationalism can likewise be renewed in the twenty-first century. In practical terms, he calls for some form of mandatory national service--not necessarily military--for all citizens following high school, as a means to foster stronger national ties and to teach the principles of citizenship. He also believes that volunteer and church groups must play a greater role in helping immigrants assimilate and not leave the job to government or the immigrants themselves. He argues for the maintenance of birthright citizenship to avoid the development of an underclass that's permanently excluded from the privileges of citizenship--a condition that recently led to fiery riots in France. He also suggests that a rigorously enforced guest-worker policy can succeed if it offers a clear path to legalization and naturalization.

Melinda Wiggins of Student Action with Farmworkers also favors a guest-worker program, though not the one proposed by President Bush. Wiggins argues that guest workers should have more say in who they work for, how long they work for them, and when they cross the border. "Right now, in so many of the guest-worker programs, the employer decides how long the employee is here, when they come, and when they go back," she says. "They can't go back and visit family, and they can't bring family here."

She says she prefers the idea of a work visa that would allow foreign nationals to put themselves in the U.S. marketplace, work a job, give proper notice, and then go to another job or go back home. "We also need to allow them to have some vacation. Then folks wouldn't have to go a year or two without seeing family, and it would give them some protections--the same protections that other employees in this country have." Like Pickus, she also argues that there must be a pathway to legal, permanent residency with some minimum time period before a guest worker can apply for citizenship. "But not all people will take advantage of the offer," Wiggins says. "I think that's a misperception, too--that everybody who is here wants to stay here. They don't, but the border right now is such a dangerous place, they are afraid to leave."

The degree to which the United States continues struggling with policies on the management of immigration and the healthy assimilation of newcomers is a self-propagating paradox, Pickus says. In True Faith and Allegiance, he quotes Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe: "We are a nation of immigrants created through a singular act of disloyalty [that] has been continually replenished by immigrants willing to break the bonds of family, faith, and community." That bold act of separation from the familiar, of pulling up roots and moving to a new land, is lost on so many of us, says Duke sociologist Suzanne Shanahan. "People are incredibly callous and unthinking when it comes to immigrants in general. Even people whose objective in life is to be an advocate for the immigrant can often be incredibly insensitive to what the immigrant experience is and how it varies from group to group."

Noah Pickus offers a caution for native-born citizens: "We need to be careful that we don't become so sophisticated that we underestimate what we know simply by growing up in this country--what we understand about our rights, that we have rights we can claim, that we have obligations even if we don't fulfill them, that the system of government works in a certain way, and that our Constitution has amendments in it because the assumption is that it isn't perfect."

Gulati-Partee, the organizational consultant, insists that she will continue to believe wholeheartedly in the American dream while also holding onto her outsider's perspective as a Hindu who grew up in Greenville, North Carolina. "To me," she says, "immigration is the lifeblood of our country. It is the source of the creativity, innovation, progress, and dynamism of our democracy."

With immigration as the source and wellspring of the United States, America is, by definition, "an open-ended proposition," Noah Pickus writes in his book, and it is precisely that open-ended, unfinished quality of our national identity that is both our strength and--some would say--our vulnerability as a nation.