Michael Barone: The New Americans

Roundup: Media's Take

All this month, members of Congress will be holding hearings around the country on immigration. They'll be hearing undoubtedly from some of the extremists on the issue -- people who suppose that we can easily expel and do without the services of the 12 million or so illegal immigrants in our midst, people who suppose we should just give amnesty to those who are here in a blink of the eye. It's an issue I'm especially interested in, as the paperback edition of my book "The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again" is out this week. The consensus around Washington is that members of Congress will not be able to reconcile the border-security-only measure passed by the House last December and the bill with border security, guest worker and legalization provisions passed by the Senate in May.

That may be right -- but it shouldn't be. America needs immigration legislation to regularize the flow of immigrants in tandem with our labor markets and to promote assimilation and Americanization, which, in the past, enabled immigrants and their children to become interwoven into the American fabric and worked to make our country more prosperous, productive and creative.

Regularize the flow of immigration. Opponents of legalization and guest worker programs talk as if the only moral blame for illegal immigration should fall on the illegals themselves. But we are all complicit. Politicians and officeholders, Democrats and Republicans, voters of all stripes have for a long time failed to insist on effective enforcement of the law, and must share the blame for the fact that people, almost all of them in search of work not welfare, have come to the United States illegally.

There are different ways to change this situation. Some would require illegals to return to their countries of origin; others would let them pay fines and back taxes and apply for legalization without leaving the United States. But the governing principle should be to find a way for immigrants to come here legally in response to the demand for their labor that obviously exists. Shutting off the flow of immigration would severely damage our economy. Legalizing it would improve our security. We need to do the latter.

This is in our interest and is also in line with our heritage. In "The New Americans," I argue that minority groups of today resemble immigrant groups of 100 years ago -- blacks resemble Irish, Latinos resemble Italians, Asians resemble Jews. A century ago many argued that Irish, Italians and Jews were separate races that could never be interwoven into the American fabric. Today we know those predictions were wrong.

Which gets me to assimilation. We Americans have proven much better at assimilating immigrants than have most other nations -- if you are disturbed by Latino demonstrations in Los Angeles, look at the Muslim riots and murders in Western Europe. But some of our elites have soured on, in Theodore Roosevelt's word, Americanization. Education elites have produced bilingual education, which too often is neither bilingual nor education. Immigrants' children need to learn to speak, read and write in English. Political and judicial elites have mandated bilingual ballots -- even though applicants for citizenship need to show they've mastered English. Transnational elites, to use Professor Samuel Huntington's word, have taught a version of American history that treats the Founding Fathers solely as slaveholders and tells us nothing about World War II but the internment of Japanese Americans. They want to encourage immigrants to remain in separate and oppositional cultural enclaves.

As Theodore Roosevelt said a century ago, immigrants -- and all of our children -- need to learn and appreciate the American heritage, the brilliant work of the Founders, our expansion of freedoms and our vibrant system of representative government. American adults are snapping up copies of books about the Founders. American children, and especially immigrants' children, need to learn the lessons of the Founders, too.

I still have hopes that Congress will be able to pass a compromise immigration bill that will regularize immigration in tandem with the labor market, with border security measures and with a later phase-in of something like the free-market guest-worker bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Pence and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. But that's not the whole task. Large majorities of both the American people and of immigrants themselves favor assimilation and Americanization. We need to overcome the efforts by elites to undermine it, both in any immigration bill and in our schools and our daily lives. Americans have dealt with immigration constructively before. We can do so again.