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True Faith and Allegiance: Immigration and American Civic Nationalism

September 21, 2005 // 12:00am

In an era of phenomena such as massive migration to the United States, transnationalism and plural citizenship, the question arises: What does it mean to be an American? The discussion of Noah Pickus' True Faith and Allegiance sponsored by the Division of U.S. Studies, the Migration Policy Institute and the National Immigration Forum became the occasion for an examination of past and present immigration and immigrant policies, as well as of the best ways to integrate immigrants into the American community. Pickus described the essence of the United States as the embodiment of principles, such as liberty, equality, and justice, and as a sense of community and of belonging to a people – in other words, of civic nationalism. He argued that an exploration of the history of attempts to create civic nationalism suggests ways in which the United States can engender a sense of belonging among its large number of immigrants today.

Americans have systematically excluded those perceived as not belonging. That process began with the limiting of citizenship to free white persons in the Naturalization Act of 1790 and continued with the anti-immigrant policies of the1798 Alien and Sedition Acts and later exclusionary statutes such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Pickus stressed, however, that our history has included both the trend of exclusion and a belief in what he termed "militant moderation." On the one hand, we create welcome centers for immigrants and give them in-state college tuition; on the other, we – unlike European nations – give them few socio-economic benefits or integration infrastructure. Pickus spoke of a current policy of "don't invest, don't expect": don't invest in integrating immigrants, don't expect citizens to help in the process, and don't expect immigrants to know much about us.

In the past, much of the job of immigrant integration was undertaken by institutions of civil society. Pickus referred, for example, to Jane Addams and the settlement houses of the Progressive era. Part of their function is performed today by evangelical churches, he suggested, but their laudable efforts are inadequate. What is needed is, first, a broader understanding of what becoming American means. Becoming American is about communities, Pickus argued, and the values that bind them. Second, we need an understanding that American identity and ethnic identity are not at odds with each other, and that ethnic groups aid the process of incorporation. Third, we need a well thought-out position on dual citizenship, which is both one of the realities of the twenty-first century and a way in which new immigrants can promote democracy in their sending countries. Finally, we must find a way of providing a safety net for immigrants while at the same time moving them toward citizenship. Immigrants today want to know what we expect of them, Pickus declared, and we must spell out their obligations more clearly – both for their sake and for the good of the country.

While praising Pickus' argument that the United States must reinvigorate the kind of civic nationalist program that existed in the Progressive era, Gary Gerstle questioned whether Pickus had paid sufficient attention to the coercion and exclusion that were part of the Progressive era. The kind of racial nationalism that manifested itself in Jim Crow statutes also affected immigrant policy, Gerstle declared. Noting that the United States has been at war during 59 of the past 107 years, he added that "the United States' social solidarity has been fashioned by war" and that the impact of external enemies on the American "we" is an important part of the immigration story. Racial anxiety was central to the 1980s and early 1990s. The Clinton era brought the hope that civic nationalism, and a sense of how we can all pull together, could exist without war. Now, however, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, and we are left with the question of whether to some extent social solidarity and mutual tolerance are opposed to each other.

Calling Pickus' volume "ambitious and resolutely candid," David Martin agreed that U.S. policy should take the lead from the Progressives who consciously sought to bind immigrants and native populations through education. He commented on the changing metaphors used to describe the United States, noting that Theodore Roosevelt's "melting pot" was replaced with a "salad bowl" analogy. Rejecting both, Martin suggested "stir fry" instead, with the United States as "a great big wok" in which the ingredients are changed by being part of the mix but yet retain separate identities – and, importantly, the character of the whole is altered in the process. Martin asserted that the United States must shed its diffidence about encouraging "true faith and allegiance" – the phrase is part of the oath immigrants swear when they become citizens – and strengthen political allegiance through civic education. The country needs both a more resolute effort to enforce border laws and a comprehensive process for addressing the problem of undocumented immigrants. Agreeing with Pickus and Gerstle that immigrant policy must be rethought, he pointed to the illogic of providing citizenship to the children of people who are here illegally. "A guest worker program is bad policy," Martin added, as it compounds a fundamental inequality of status. "If we need their labor, we should welcome the people who provide it as potential full members" of the community. Alfonso Aguilar, Chief of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service's Office of Citizenship, commented from the audience that how to do so is among the major challenges facing the United States today.

Drafted by Acacia Reed and Philippa Strum

Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129

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