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Whatever Happened to the Ideal of Citizenship? : Immigration: The debate over who should be allowed in and what rights they should enjoy has submerged the goal of coming to America.

July 11, 1993|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Center for the New West and business-trends analyst for Fox News. He is author of "Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy" (Random House).

Disclosure of an Islamic extremist plot to blow up the United Nations and New York landmarks and scenes of Chinese illegal immigrants waiting to come ashore in New York and San Francisco have intensified public anxiety--and fear--about immigration. More and more Americans, according to polls, want to make it tougher for migrants to enter the country, and the politicians seem ready--indeed, eager--to follow their lead.

Anti-immigrant attitudes here are echoed abroad, particularly in Europe, where anti-foreign sentiment is rising and legislative moves to bar immigrants are well under way. But for Americans to ape such restrictions would be disastrous--not only for economic reasons. It would run against the grain of our national character. More than any other country, America prides itself on the idea that immigrants searching for a better life are welcome here.

Yet, many advocates of unrestricted immigration overlook the special nature of American immigration. Preoccupied with the "rights" of newcomers, they disregard the historic purpose of American immigration: the gradual transformation of immigrant into citizen.

Nowhere has the ideal of citizenship played so central a role in shaping economic, social and political life than in the United States. True, many European immigrants who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries often were ambivalent--as are their Latino and Asian counterparts today--about their new country. As many as half of them returned home. But those who stayed became citizens and moved into the mainstream of American cultural, economic and political life.

Making citizenship the goal of immigration would shift the debate about newcomers beyond strictly humanistic concerns toward their rights and obligations as Americans. This citizenship-based view of immigration, however, does not suggest that immigrants must cut their cultural, religious and emotional ties to the past. In multiracial empires as far back as Alexander's and ancient Rome, Jews, Egyptians and others from outside the dominant groups were allowed to retain their culture even as some, particularly in the Roman Empire, eventually reached the highest circles of the prevailing political and economic system.

One consequence of the decline of citizenship as an ideal is that attention seems fixated on the negative effects of illegal immigration, a tendency reinforced by the severity of the recession in such key ports of entry as New York or Los Angeles. Accordingly, the many contributions of legal residents and prospective citizens have been sadly overlooked.

Yet, if anti-immigration groups hammer most ceaselessly on illegals, this hardly constitutes the fullest extent of their agenda. Virtually all restrictionist groups, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), have effectively used illegal immigration as a convenient excuse to urge drastic cuts in legal immigration, from the current 800,000 a year to nearly 200,000 annually.

For some, even these restrictions are too moderate. A recent report by the Orange County Grand Jury, though ostensibly concerned with problems associated with illegal immigration, produced headlines when it called for a three-year moratorium on all new entrants to the country. In urging the immigration freeze, the grand jury blithely devalued the enormous contributions, to Orange County's economy and society, of its predominately legal and growing immigrant population. For example, six of the 14 top CEO's on the Orange County Business Journal's list of top manufacturers were born outside the United States.

Such economic contributions alone should be enough to soften the clamor for higher immigration hurdles. But the pro-immigration case itself is flawed by the failure of its advocates to make strong and clear distinctions between legal and illegal immigrants, between prospective citizens and temporary sojourners. By insisting on the word undocumented instead of illegal , the advocates seem to be challenging the validity of U.S. law itself.

This assault on the legitimacy of the immigration process frequently plays into the hands of those who would restrict all immigration. Urging that illegals be given free access to public services adds fuel to the restrictionist argument that immigration invariably expands the welfare burden. Opposing the deportation of illegals convicted of crimes perpetuates the impression that the price of toleration is a permanent foreign criminal class.

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