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Immigration and Citizenship

On my way to work in the morning when I lived in California, I often listened to Forum, a locally-produced interview and call-in program on KQED, San Francisco’s primary public radio station. That being the San Francisco Bay area, and me tending toward ‘conservative’ political views, I frequently found myself disagreeing with what the guests and/or callers had to say or frustrated that some particularly egregious example of fuzzy thinking had gone unchallenged.  Unfortunately, I was never in a position to participate in the discussion, both because I listened while I was driving and because one of my personal failings is complete brain shut-down when confronted with a stranger on the other end of a telephone.

Occasionally, however, I found myself so distressed by what I’d heard that I was compelled to send an e-mail to the program when I got to work. That was in some ways an exercise in futility; by the time my message was sent the program was over and nothing I said made it onto the air. Nonetheless, I pressed on.

Late in January of 2001, the program had a discussion of immigration and the guests were all, in some way, advocates for ‘immigrants’ rights’. At one point a caller expressed dismay that naturalized citizens in his neighborhood were quite open about their unwillingness to serve in the American military if called, and that their general attitude was of overriding allegiance to their old homelands rather than to their new one. I thought his concerns were legitimate, if overwrought, and the manner in which the guests dismissed him as a xenophobic crank — and the failure of the program’s host to defend him in any way — incensed me. This letter was the result.

To his credit, Michael Krasny, the host of Forum, answered personally, expressing a sorrow that he had been perceived as dismissive, a concern that his intention had been so miscommunicated, and an interest in the concerns I and the caller raised.

31 January 2001

Mr. Krasny,

One of the callers on this morning’s show expressed distress with the fact that he had heard many naturalized citizens from various parts of the Middle-East state that they would not serve in the military — in his words, “would not fight for this country” — if asked. You were correct when you told him his comments were tangential to the issue under discussion, and correct to redirect the conversation to its main channel, but the dismissive tone used by you and your guests to do so were disrespectful and will only aggravate the concerns he revealed.

While his question was somewhat narrow, and it was not the subject of this particular show, I think the broader question behind such concerns is something that is not often discussed but should be. It may even deserve its own hour of Forum some time in the future.

It would be a wonderful world if we, as a country, had the resources and carrying capacity to allow everyone who wants to live under a capitalist democratic system to come here, to live the closest thing to a free existence the world offers at this point in history, to make their fortune or not. Alas, we do not. One can argue that we could accept more immigrants than we do — even a lot more — but still recognize that more does not mean all.

Given our inherent limitations, the task of deciding who may come and who may not is a serious responsibility. We can certainly do better than we have in the past and we would certainly do well to separate the process from politics, but there must be rules and, unless we want to go to a pure lottery, the rules must recognize that some are more deserving than others in this regard.

As a moral people, it is our duty to favor those whose situations are truly hopeless over those with other options. As a nation, it is in our interest, and ultimately in the interest of those we allow to immigrate here, that those most likely to be productive members of our society be granted entry and those most likely to detract from our society be denied entry. In both cases we may and should debate the specific criteria we use to decide without implying there should be no criteria at all.

With the granting of citizenship we should be even more circumspect. When we grant a person citizenship we, as a nation, are making a commitment to that person, to grant him/her the privileges that only citizens share, to allow him/her a voice in how we should be governed, and to defend his/her interests both internally and abroad. In return we ask for a reciprocal commitment from them to the nation, a commitment that, in their own dealings, they put our interests ahead of the interests of other nations, that they forego their former allegiances in favor of a new one to us, to our nation, and to our society.

That does not mean they must cut all ties to their homeland, or forego their cultural heritage, or give up on trying to bring their old homeland and their new one into rapport. But it does mean that we legitimately demand their primary loyalty.

Incidents like the Wen Ho Lee case are driven by a constant suspicion among many people — a suspicion fueled by comments like those heard by your caller, and by the existence of closed ethnic communities, and by thousands of other minor acts we observe and statements we hear every day in this highly heterogeneous region — that the loyalties of such naturalized citizens are not only divided but are, in fact, primarily given to the old world rather than to the new; that they are happy to take what America can offer them but are reluctant to give back what America expects of them.

This comes back to the fundamental questions that are rarely addressed in any straightforward way: Who should we accept as immigrants? Who should we reject? What commitments, to civil behavior and to our national best interest, ought we require of those we accept? And what commitments, to civil behavior, to our national best interest, and to duty to our society and respect for our culture, ought we demand of those who would claim citizenship in our nation?

For most of us, those who were born in this nation and those from elsewhere who have embraced it in their hearts, this is our home and our future. That we have concerns about its preservation, that we want those who come here to take advantage of its bounty to embrace it as we have, is not reactionary or parochial and in no way implies disrespect for other cultures and other peoples. It is prudent and, yes, patriotic in the best sense of that word. Do not dismiss such concerns, or trivialize them, or marginalize them. That is true disrespect.

© Copyright 2001, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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