Trump Risks Debasing American Citizenship

By | 2018-01-27T10:52:58+00:00 January 25th, 2018|
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Because Democrats regard the millions of people who have entered, are entering, and (they hope) will continue to enter the United States illegally as a prospective bloc of captive voters, they demand we give illegal aliens “a path to citizenship.” And President Trump now seems inclined to give in to that demand.

Citizenship is what the 1965 immigration law has conferred to more than 40 million people from what we used to call the Third World, a majority of whom have in fact become the Democratic Party’s reliable supporters. So as we decide what the status of various categories of illegals should be and whether to continue or to reform our current system of legal immigration, there should be no doubt that the balance of political power in America is at stakenever mind its cultural character.

Who shall be admitted to citizenship is the question. Next to that, who we let in to do what looms small. Citizenship determines who shall rule, to what ends, and what life among us will be. Such decisions are quintessential to popular sovereignty.

We obfuscate reality if we pretend that today’s influx is a mere continuation of the hallowed heritage of American immigration; if we ignore that people who want to come to America differ in their motivation, character, and above all in relevance to our constitutional republic. What follows distinguishes the categories of people involved and asks what status we should grant to whom and for what reason.

Is It All Just Racism?
The 1924 immigration law had established small quotas for immigration from foreign countries, proportionate to the percentage of U.S citizens from those counties. Today, calling that law “racist” is commonplace. By what criterion is it “racist” for a country to decide to remain the way it is?  

By the 1924 law, Americans decided to admit people like themselves, including habits of the heart and mind regarding honesty, work, women, and America itself. And if taking origin into account is racist, why was the 1965 law not racist for prioritizing and turbocharging with unlimited “family reunification immigration” by Third World people with characteristics very much different from those of Americans? What had been wrong with America that it had to be righted by injecting people as different as these have been? What change, precisely, was this injection supposed to produce?

In short, the contrast between the pre- and post-1965 approaches to immigration has to do with the different political and cultural agendas of Americans.

Full disclosure: my mother and I immigrated from Italy in 1955. At the time, competition for visas was stiff. Mom had answered a job offer from America. My school report cards were examined. All who stood as our ship passed by the Statue of Liberty had undergone intensive interviews about our attitude to America and everything else, including politics and religion. I did not meet anybody on the ship who was not enthusiastic about becoming an American. None of us spoke English. We yearned to assimilate. Had anyone suggested that we avail ourselves of public assistance, we would have shuddered with incomprehension and horror.  

Post-1965 legal immigration’s similarity with that of 1924-65 ends with the fact that all receive “permanent residency” and “a path to citizenship.” And yes, the arrival of Indo-Pakistani doctors, Chinese scientists, and so forth continues to testify to America’s attraction to the world’s most talented and energetic people.

The 1965 law, however, as designed and especially as administered, opened a “path to citizenship” to massive numbers of folk regardless of talent or character, specifically from the “developing world.” For some 70 percent, the chief additional characteristic is being a link in an endless chain of family relations. Often they come lukewarm or even hostile to what America is, to its ways, to its history, even to Judeo-Christianity. Assimilating and becoming citizens of the Founders’ Republic is hardly a priority.

Not incidentally, since the mid-1960s, the U.S. government and the ruling class in general have ceased to regard assimilation as a good worth pursuing. They have considered themselves operators of a vast enterprise of social welfare and uplift of which immigrants are another category of clients. This has worked synergistically: in contrast with previous immigrants whose admission had been conditioned on earning their way, the post-’65 variety have been offered a host of public benefits, which they have not been shy about taking.

Migration vs. Immigration
Meanwhile, millions of Latin Americans—but mostly Mexicans—were migrating north. At first, this had nothing to do with immigration. The Mexicans, especially, were flowing in both directions across an essentially open border. They were coming mostly for seasonal work and going home accordingly.

During World War II and for almost two decades following, the U.S. government recruited and facilitated this flow through the “Braceros” program. (As a high school student in the late 1950s, I helped provide translation at their farm labor camps in New Jersey.)

In the 1960s, the government ended the guest-worker program under pressure from the labor movement and began to tighten controls on the Mexican border. The more difficult and expensive it became for workers to go back and forth, the more they brought wives and children, and stayed. During the off-season, some availed themselves of American public services. Thus did migrant workers effectively become migrants.

But virtually none had any idea, never mind intention, of joining our republic and assimilating as bona fide immigrants. Their extended families and their hearts remained in Mexico. As decades passed, some de facto assimilation occurred. The children who became adults in America, and new ones who were born on U.S. soil, have known only America. Hence, over a half-century, a new Latino reality of perhaps 12 million people has grown, never envisaged by law but seldom disturbed by it. New migrants are adding to it.

Our Choices
Democrats (plus some Republicans and even President Trump) speak of this illegal or semi-legal mass as “immigrants,” and pretend that our only choice is to make citizens of them or deport them.

Nonsense. These persons never “immigrated.” They neither requested to be part of us nor received a favorable answer. There is no question of any right or justice to citizenship. In any country, such people have only such legal status as the laws may grant. Moreover, in America, these illegals or semi-legals are hardly outlaws. Although state laws vary and federal law prohibits the employment of non-“U.S. persons” without special visas, illegals live and work here basically without restriction. Virtually all social services are open to them. Perhaps most important, they enjoy the protection of the laws governing contracts. Deportation is so episodic as to be anomalous.

Our legal and administrative convenience argues for defining their legal status in a manner beneficial to all: residence and ability to work during good behavior. And that’s it. Parts of our economy, especially agriculture, depend on foreigners who want to work here, but who neither want to be nor are wanted as citizens. But the false dichotomy between citizenship and deportation, deep-rooted in our theatrical and exploitative politics, continues to rule this out.

Democrats cry “to avoid deporting ‘the kids,’ we must grant citizenship and voting rights to all.” Candidate Trump had bellowed: “For those here illegally today who are seeking legal status, they will have one route and one route only. To return home and apply for re-entry like everybody else.”

President Trump was never going to deport some 800,000 persons who had arrived as children, along with millions of their productive parents. Most rational observers of the election understood that. But he did not have to cave to the Democrats’ demand to grant citizenship to the whole lot. A White House spokesman explained that his decision to seek a “path to citizenship” for 1.8 million people is “a compromise position that we believe . . . will get 60 votes in the Senate.”

Reflect on what low regard for citizenship—a share in ruling America—one must have to confer it on a class of people in an attempt to make a political deal. Think about the disparity between the consequential, irrevocable gift and the hope to meet a threshold of votes that Senate rules can change on a whim. The grand hope is that the Democrats may agree to money for some miles of a “big, beautiful wall” along the Mexican border, so that the president may pretend to his less intelligent supporters that, by voting for him, they have preserved America’s integrity.

But illegal entrants will find it a trifle. Most already come in big batches through the border’s most fortified parts. Ask them how it’s done. The going rate for a no-frills but safe trip, usually in an 18-wheeler, they tell you, is about $4,000 a head—half of which the traffickers pay to the Border Patrol. More important, future border crossers will know that, under the new precedent, so long as they bring with them somebody under 18, they’ll be able to count on citizenship sooner or later. Democrats have already started counting the votes.

Immigration under the 1965 law has been netting the Democrats almost 1 million new voters a  year—consistency in the immigrants’ political character being well-nigh guaranteed by keeping some 70 percent of new immigration within the ever-extending families of earlier arrivals.

In short, the Democrats, having figured out a half-century ago they were becoming distasteful to the voters, set about recruiting voters with different tastes.

The Nobility of Citizenship
There seems to be growing agreement in Washington that the 1965 law should be revised to favor persons of “merit” to America. But just like defining the meaning of “legal status” for illegals, defining who “merits” legal immigration will pit Democrats who know exactly what they want—votes—against Republicans who either are trying to project a benevolent image or are simply servicing the Chamber of Commerce’s requests for cheap labor.

Alas, reform of legal immigration is likely to follow the pattern that Trump has set: empty Republican words filled by more purposeful Democrats. Bragging rights for the former, votes for the latter.

Possibly to change this pattern, the country—and immigrant communities—would have to face the Democratic immigration strategy’s ugly reality, namely to turn immigrant communities into the functional political equivalent of blacks. Democrats secure their votes with a small, declining modicum of real assistance, and ever more virulent efforts to incite hate between them and the rest of America. Anyone familiar with Hispanics and Latinos knows how distasteful to them are any and all notions of being treated like blacks.

The sine qua non of transcending the sad state of America’s immigration politics, however, is the revival of discourse over the nobility of citizenship in this great republic. The United States of America is the best of great nations and the greatest of good nations. To have any power over its life is the greatest of responsibilities. Those we elect as stewards of American citizenship must treat it as a sacred trust, and pass it on as such.

About the Author:

Angelo Codevilla
Angelo M. Codevilla is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and the author of To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).