United States Commission on Immigration Reform

Testimony of Lawrence Fuchs
Meyer and Walter Jaffee Professor of American Civilization and Politics
Brandeis University
Vice Chair, U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform
Submitted to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommitte on Immigration
October 22, 1996


In my testimony, I try to provide a framework for examining the evolution of the essential characteristics of American nationality and citizenship. I will make a few specific recommendations and general comments on strengthening the meaning of citizenship.

There are usually three qualities that make up a sense of nationhood: a founding myth that explains the origins and purpose of the nation; a compelling narrative that tells a story about the core values that emanate from that myth and the heroes and heroines of that story; and finally, rituals that remind the people of that story, embodying the myth, its values, its heroes and heroines, and symbols.

Founding myths, accounting for the origins of a nation and explaining its destiny, usually are tribal (based on genealogy or blood) as with the Abraham story in the Old Testament (God told Abraham to create a new nation) or the tale of Theseus, the mythical Athenian king who defeated the horrible Minotaur of Crete and united twelve small independent states of Attica, making Athens the capital of the new state. The foundation of Rome was attributed to Romulus, son of Mars, the god of war, who, after having been raised with his brother Remus by a she-wolf, conquered the Sabines and built a new city on the Tiber River on the spot where their lives had been saved. Japan, according to its traditional founding myth, was established because a favorite descendent of the Sun Goddess created the Japanese islands and became the first Emperor, from whom all emperors are descended.

Early in its history, spokesmen for the new American nation explained that the U.S. was created as a nation in which individual liberty, opportunity, and reward for individual achievement would prosper. This powerful new myth provided an ideological rationalization for the selfish interest early settlers had in recruiting European immigrants to claim the land, fight Indians, and later to work in the mines and factories. It became the founding myth of a new political culture, uniting white Americans from different religious and national backgrounds, and later others who were not white, in a sense of shared American nationhood. Belief in the myth motivated Americans to create new political institutions and practices that Alexis de Tocqueville, an early nineteenth century French visitor, saw as encouraging a patriotism that grew "by the exercise of civil rights." What he called the "patriotism of a republic" was based on the premise that it is possible to interest men and women in the welfare of their country by making them participants in its government and by so doing to enlist their enthusiastic loyalty to a national community. Here, the feeling of "we-ness" that is usually based on similar physical characteristics, language, or religion (or a combination of them) was replaced by a belief in the myth itself and the values, heroes and heroines, symbols and rituals revolving around the idea of freedom. It was this civic culture that replaced a more tribal culture as a basis of nationhood and appeared to teach men and women to work together with those "who otherwise would have always lived apart."

They myth and its values were embodied in a narrative, beginning with the American Revolution. The narrative tells of the struggle to enlarge freedom for an increasing number of persons regardless of their national origin, color, or religion. It recalls the Civil War, the Second World War against Nazism, the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the continuing immigrant saga, and the successful defense of freedom and democracy against the Soviet Union and its totalitarian system of government.

This American story about the struggle for freedom-freedom sought, freedom thwarted, freedom won, and freedom enlarged-includes oppression, exploitation, and terrible harm against those whom the insiders thought of as outsiders. But the main story line is clear: a long-term expansion of freedom-a continual rebirth of freedom (to use Lincoln's words), although often interrupted. That sense of continuing renewal is reflected in part in the slogans of the twentieth century activist presidents, such as "The New Freedom" (Wilson), "The New Deal" (Franklin D. Roosevelt), "The Fair Deal" (Truman), "The New Frontier" (Kennedy), "The Great Society" (Johnson), and "The New Beginning" (Reagan). The American story relies heavily on texts that are often treated as though they are sacred: the Declaration of Independence; the Constitution, and especially its Bill of Rights and Fourteenth Amendment; Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address; and Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech.

The preamble to the Constitution calls upon Americans to "form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. . . ." More than any other nation, Americans have emphasized liberty as its central value. Liberty was grounded in what they called the equality of every person under God, a belief asserted in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truth to be self evident, that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

By emphasizing equal rights in a nation that authorized slavery, the founders introduced a profound moral ambiguity that some argue has not yet been entirely resolved. The idea of equality became as compelling as that of liberty in American political discourse, but its meaning is less clear. Liberty meant freedom from government interference to the founders and still retains essentially that meaning. But what does equality mean? Does it mean social equality, equality under the laws, equality of opportunity, equality of condition-or some combination of them? Equality, in all its many meanings, took on great significance in the rhetoric of public live and social discourse and even in family life in America.

The American narrative is also about the tension between the values of liberty and quality. Much of the debate in American domestic politics is about society's obligation to promote equality of opportunity for those who are born to inherently unequal conditions. Those who are suspicious about public policies that attempt to do that point out that equality of opportunity implies the opportunity to compete with and rise about others and to be rewarded for one's successful efforts. The opposite view holds that without government intervention, equality of opportunity can have little meaning for those born to economically or otherwise disadvantaged circumstances. However, much Americans differ in the debate as to how they should promote equality of opportunity, most of them deeply cherish equality of opportunity as an American value.

In recent years, the political debate has focused increasingly on the role of government in providing equality of opportunity through policies that give particular recognition to the claims of members of groups who have suffered (and many say continue to suffer) restricted opportunity because they are women, African-Americans, or members of other designated minority groups. The very fact that disadvantage is presumed to be a condition that inheres in membership in such groups regardless of one's individual circumstances (health, wealth, education of parents, family situation) has given new meaning to the question of the relationship of the pluribus to the unum. Group membership has become an increasingly powerful way of defining individual identity, and public policies now go beyond equality under the law in recognizing gender, color, and national origin as a basis for what is usually called affirmative action regardless of individual circumstances. In addition, some members of groups designated as disadvantaged claim a status of inherited victimization that deepens their sense of grievance against the political and economic system that they see as dominated by white males. As a result, much of the current debate about multiculturalism revolves around their insistence on having their separateness acknowledged and affirmed in public policy generally, including education. Some, including even white males, reject the idea of a common culture, even a common political culture, as long as members of certain groups cannot show aggregate (group) results in economic, educational, and political attainment equal to that of white males.

Others see in this view of American life a danger to the value of liberty itself. They ask what freedom means if not the freedom to assert one's individuality regardless of inherited group status. What does it mean unless one is free to cross group boundaries regardless of one's color or inherited religion or nationality? What, they ask, will happen under the strains of increasing diversity if those who live, work, and vote in this country begin to think of themselves first and foremost as members of separate groups and not as Americans?

My own view is more optimistic than these questions imply. I agree with those who believe that the tension between the claims of the pluribus and the requirements of the unum can be resolved in a nation that values both liberty and equality, but only if we pay at least as much attention to the requirements of the unum as to the histories, sensibilities, and claims of the pluribus.

I think that serious scholars of this subject of Americanization are in virtually unanimous agreement that civic virtue and good citizenship in the United States has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, despite the burgeoning claims of polemicists to the contrary. That conclusion is demonstrated overwhelmingly by the evidence during these past 250 years. To argue that whites or Anglo-Americans have been more devoted to principles of liberty and justice for all flies in the face of the facts.

American values are accessible to anyone, regardless of race, religion, or ancestral background, precisely because our most important principle is the equal protection of the laws for all, regardless of race, religion, or national origin. That is the genius of the system, which must be protected and nourished.

A robust idea of American citizenship depends on a widespread understanding and appreciation-and even celebration-of the American constitutional system, its symbols and rituals, its heroes and heroines.

I believe there are several things that can be done to encourage that robust sense of citizenship for native-born and naturalized citizens. Here are six of them:

What do I mean by a commitment to civic education? I believe the Secretary of Education should call a conference of state educational leaders to examine the possibility of developing a common core civic curriculum. I don't mean curriculum just for one grade level in a civics course, although that could and should be a part of it. I mean that our schools should teach the essential of American history and constitutional principles repeatedly at different grade levels in appropriate ways. I also mean that the Pledge of Allegiance should be recited and discussed. What does the goal of liberty and justice for all mean? What do we mean by majority rule and individual rights?

I mean putting the pictures of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt back on the schoolroom walls and teaching how their roles in the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II relate to the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and FDR's Four Freedoms in the American search to expand the meaning of liberty and justice for all.

I mean a curriculum that nourishes civic virtue in action by including community service, as a number of schools now do. I mean a curriculum that encourages all Americans, not just those in the schools, to think about the meaning of Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, and Martin Luther King's birthday. And whatever happened to "I Am An American Day?" Lets bring it back. What a wonderful occasion for naturalization ceremonies, community service, and local competition for young essayists to say what being an American means to them.

Throughout most of American history, Independence Day, July 4th, was the most important national holiday. Different ethnic groups often combined their celebration of American independence and the and the values of American life in their own particular way. In the 1880s in Worcester, Massachusetts, the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, an Irish nationalist society, held a picnic on July 4th in which the exuberance of the Irish served both as a preservation of Irish customs and a defense of American freedoms. Independence Day in Worcester in the 1890s attracted a large proportion of the Swedish-American population, who began with services at one of eight Swedish Protestant churches and ended at the picnic with patriotic speeches, sometimes in Swedish. All the ethnic groups of Worcester used Independence Day as an opportunity to express their own ethnic identity even as they celebrated American freedoms.

As new immigrant-ethnic groups claimed an American identity for themselves, a great many Anglo-Saxon Protestants, particularly in New England, thought of Independence Day as their special holiday. When President Ulysses S. Grant and key members of his cabinet joined the centennial celebration of the beginning of the American revolution at Concord and Lexington, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1875, they listened to speeches made only by illustrious Anglo-Americans, including some of the great poets of New England. The master of ceremonies of the festive day in Lexington reminded the audience that all of the foreign heroes at Lexington and Concord had English names.

Then the Anglo-Americans, especially in New England, thought of themselves as the charter members of the Republic. Americans from other backgrounds were relative newcomers, and persons of color were still treated essentially as outsiders by those who held governmental and economic power, despite the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. A few years after the centennial, their position as outsiders would be more sharply defined. Blacks in the south would be subjugated, for the most part, to a segregated rural working class-sharecroppers, for the most part. Chinese laborers would be excluded from immigrating to the United States, and an Act was passed in 1887 by the Congress to break up native American Indian lands and assimilate the Indians.

One hundred years later, the bicentennial of the Revolution was celebrated by emphasizing American diversity. That was also true of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, the bicentennial of the Constitution, and the celebration of the restoration of Ellis Island. Ethnicity had become central to the American story-to the way Americans looked at themselves and presented themselves to the world. On the mall of the nation's capital on July 4th, 1983, the National Symphony was conducted by a Russian refugee, Mstlav Rostropovich, who played the distinctive American music of Jewish-American composers George Gerswhin and Aaron Copeland. Arias from Porgy and Bess were sung by the great American black singer, Leontyne Price. "A Lincoln Portrait" was narrated by the black American baseball player Willie Stargell. Newcomer Americans from at least two dozen Asian, African, and Latin American countries tapped and drummed to "The Star and Stripes Forever," composed by the Portuguese-American, John Philp Sousa.

The Fourth of July emphasizes national independence and personal freedom. Thanksgiving, which has become the other major holiday of America's civic culture, also offers an opportunity for celebrating e pluribus unum. The theme of Thanksgiving, proclaimed by George Washington in 1789 and again by President Lincoln in 1863 as a national holiday memorializing the 1621 feast of thanks given by Pilgrims (who did not call themselves Pilgrims or wear tall hats or black suits with wide collars or eat turkey) at Plymouth, still retained a more or less religious appreciation of the benefits of freedom and opportunity in the U.S. But in the 1970s and 1980s, Thanksgiving became another occasion for the celebration of ethnic diversity. In 1976, The New York Times told of an Italian family who ate a Thanksgiving dinner as they imagined Columbus might have had. A Russian-American family featured a Russian dessert made from cranberries; a Chinese-American family ate Peking duck instead of turkey; and an Austrian-American family feasted on braised turkey and white beans. A Boston Globe story in 1985 told of Cambodians, Vietnamese, and Laotians celebrating Thanksgiving at a feast sponsored by the Jewish Vocational Service. There, the refugee families ate fiery nuk chau sauce and cha gio egg rolls along with their roast turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.

By 1986, a writer for The New York Times concluded that "as an American holiday, Thanksgiving's universality must lie in its ability to welcome succeeding generation of immigrant to these shores." She wrote of Haitians, Barbadians, Jamaicans, Panamanians, and Trinidadians sitting down with family members for dinners that merged the culinary traditions of their homeland cultures with those of the more traditional Thanksgiving. "For me," reported one second-generation American of West Indian background, "Thanksgiving is a mixing of the black-American traditions with the Caribbean."

A civic education curriculum does not denigrate ethnic and religious diversity in the United States. Far from it. It honors it and even celebrates it. But it would not permit, as now occurs in many universities and some high schools, the encouragement of ethnocentrism in the name of multiculturalism.

I will skip a discussion my second point-the question of group rights as I have written about it extensively elsewhere. There has been a tendency in American public discourse to speak of group rights as though they were civil rights. Civil rights apply to individuals. We have no place in our constitutional system for group rights, except for native American Indians and possibly ethnic Hawaiians, Aleuts, and Eskimos.

The importance of English seems self-evident. The more linguistically capable Americans are, the better. But English is a must for anyone to participate substantially in the national political community or the enter the competition for opportunities in a vast continental and global economy. English is an important sign of national identity. My immigrant, orphan, illiterate grandmother could not write English or any other language until the day she died, and she was a magnificent human being who raised eight dedicated, patriotic Americans. But her limited knowledge of English restricted her chances-she never held any job except that of maid-and cut her off from many aspects of American life. We need a national volunteer effort not just to teach children English, as called for by President Clinton, but also to expand English teaching resources for adult immigrants and refugees.

The next recommendation-improving the naturalization test-is one I have not written or testified about before. The present naturalization oath includes archaic language that takes away from its meaning. It reads:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear truth and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombattant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

It is amazing that the oath has held up as long as it has. But surely we can do something about such archaic language as "abjure" and "fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate." One possibility would be:

I, (name), take this solemn oath (or "make this solemn affirmation) freely and without mental reservation or purpose of evasion. My allegiance is to the United States of America above any other nation. I promise to support and honor the Constitution and laws of my new country and their principles of liberty and justice for all. I pledge to defend them by force of arms, noncombatant military service, or civilian work of national importance if necessary.

One might suspect that I am in favor of making naturalization easier by recommending a change in language. That is not the case. I want the naturalization oath to be understood. I am concerned about any tendency to reduce further the civic education and English language requirements for naturalization. There is considerable evidence that the naturalization ceremony, when done with dignity, stimulates feelings of patriotic loyalty for newcomer citizens around basic values of liberty and equality of opportunity. Newspaper accounts of naturalization swearing-in ceremonies repeatedly tell of the enthusiasm with which these new citizens embrace them. A Russian-Jewish refugee from Kiev, who was one of ninety-seven immigrants from twenty-eight countries sworn in as U.S. citizens at the Monticello home of Thomas Jefferson, told a television reporter after his naturalization ceremony: "I believe the most important thing that brought me to this country is the dream about the future of my kids, to grow them in a free country, to be independent, to be whatever they want. . . . The United States. My land of opportunity." Another immigrant, this one from Vietnam, told a reporter after the same ceremony: ". . . this is the best place . . . this is the best opportunity, in America." In El Paso, Texas, a new Trinidadian-American said: "We feel there are more opportunities here for us and our family . . ."

Freedom to work and make a living is one of the inducements to become an American citizen. But the speeches made by those who preside over naturalization ceremonies usually stress the importance of other freedoms. At many ceremonies, naturalized citizens are given a copy of the Bill of Rights. And many new citizens respond. A newly-naturalized, Cuban-American told reporters that becoming an American is the greatest thing "because here we can have what everyone should have, and that means our human rights. In short, freedom."

We need to mobilize volunteer resources to support the naturalization work of the INS. I believe the presidential leadership, with presidential leadership, with the cooperation of governors, mayors, civic and service organizations, universities, corporations, and labor unions, we can process naturalization expeditiously without demeaning its significance. Panels of distinguished Americans from various walks of life can be enlisted as accredited volunteers to participate in managing naturalization ceremonies.

I also believe we should consider requiring a variety of standardized written civics and history tests in English for passing of the naturalization exam. This would cut down the time used in oral interviews and elevate the significance of passing the exam by making standards more uniform. Exceptions could be made for compassionate reasons, as they are now.

I will conclude by saying that if people living in poverty had heard my remarks up to this point, they would be likely to think them utterly irrelevant to their own lives. Jacob Riis examined the relationship of civic virtue and citizenship to poverty in 1902 in his book The Battle with the Slum. He wrote that where the slum flourishes unchallenged in the cities, "citizen virtue," as a he called it, is starved. It is not enough, he wrote, to repeat that all men are created equal.

So let us remember that citizenship does not flourish in mean streets where unemployment, drive-by shootings and crack cocaine are widespread. Nor is civic virtue helped by a hostile reception to immigrants. It does nothing to cultivate a robust ideal of citizenship to categorically deny safety net welfare benefits to legal immigrants who need them through no fault of their own or of their sponsors. Nor will civic virtue be promoted by denial of a public school education to the children illegal aliens or by the modification of birthright citizenship.

Why do we care so much about citizenship in U.S.? I think it is because we were the first nation to say that citizenship is not a question of complying with the wishes of the sovereign or a matter of blood. It is entirely voluntary. No government can force it on you or take it away unless you lied to get it. It is a matter of our free will. That revolutionary idea is at the heart of our experiment in self government. We believe that ordinary women and men, regardless of their ancestry, can make a democratic republic work. This is not just an abstract issue: too much blood has been spilt in order to make this idea a reality to everyone born in this country, regardless of race, ancestry, religion, or economic circumstances.

Some of my friends are extremely worried about the fact that our constitutional system permits dual citizenship. I urge them to keep in mind that loyalty cannot be compelled. The loyalty of subjects may be compelled, but not that of totally free citizens. The power to win loyalty in this culture of voluntary citizenship has been demonstrated many times in American history. Witness the extraordinary record of Japanese-Americans in the 442nd regimental combat team in World War II. Note the story of Sergeant Jimmy Lopez, one of the American hostages held by Iran in 1980, who wrote on the wall where he was imprisoned: "Viva el rojo, blanco e azul!" (Long live the red, white, and blue). Tell your grandchildren the story of Guy Gabald—n a Mexican-American who won the silver star in the Second World War. Raised in East Los Angles by a Japanese-American family who taught him to speak Japanese fluently, he won the medal for persuading one thousand Japanese soldiers to surrender during the battle for the island of Saipan.

These stories illustrate the strength of our civic culture. But they do not mean we can be complacent. The civil culture must be nourished. Attention must be paid. And Senator Simpson, you should be congratulated for doing just that.


USCIR Homepage
Last update December 19, 1996