Does America still Americanize immigrants? That question is now nervously being debated in the wake of the Boston marathon bombings. It’s not just that the Tsarnaev brothers were “torn between two worlds,” as the cliché goes. It’s that Tamerlan, the elder brother, actively rejected American life. He had no American friends. He harangued other American Muslims for celebrating Thanksgiving and July 4. He was, in short, a “bad immigrant.”
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All this has led to some jerking of knees and wringing of hands. Among the jerking are politicians like senators Rand Paul and Chuck Grassley, who now want to freeze immigration reform. The hand-wringers include commentators like John O’Sullivan of the National Review, who claims that immigrants have declining patriotic attachment to America and that liberal multiculturalism is to blame. The conclusion is that America needs to get better at pushing immigrants to assimilate and to lose their attachments to the old country.
This view is misguided in two ways. First, the fact is that immigrants in general are assimilating as rapidly as in previous waves of migration. The integration of the second generation of Hispanic and Asian immigrant families testifies to this. Their pride and participation in American society rivals that of second-generation Italians and Jews last century. There are of course angry, alienated young people in every immigrant community who can’t reconcile clashing cultural codes —especially those traumatized by war in their homelands and who fester in isolation here. But there are angry, alienated youth in every non-immigrant community. Sandy Hook, Aurora, Columbine, and Oklahoma City testify to this.
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The second, deeper problem with the fear that America doesn’t do assimilation anymore is that, well, this isn’t your father’s (or grandfather’s) assimilation. Newcomers today, from Chechnya or China, encounter an American culture that is more diverse and hybridized than the world has ever seen. That doesn’t mean newcomers aren’t Americanizing. It means that the baseline has changed. To assimilate in 1913 meant to Anglicize and to whitewash difference. To assimilate in 2013 means to mash up and remix diversity. That’s messier. It’s progress.
Where the worriers are right, though, is that this country’s schools, libraries and other institutions have to do better to ensure that everyone — native-born and immigrant alike — understands the history, origins, and common civic creed of this country. We have to ensure that our youth — native-born and immigrant alike — find constructive ways to belong when they’re feeling most isolated. And we have to resist the temptation to let the Tsarnaev brothers diminish our belief in the transcendent power of American citizenship.
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Some immigrant advocates are dismayed that these petty terrorists acted just when momentum for immigration reform was building. But this forces us more seriously to consider the content of our citizenship — not just the legal status that one brother attained and another sought, but its moral and cultural meaning. After 9/11 some liberals asked, “Why do they hate us?” and were mocked by jingoistic conservatives for “blaming America.” Now conservatives like O’Sullivan are asking, “Why don’t they love us?” Instead of mockery, let’s unpack the question: Who’s they? What’s love? And who’s us?
They are our neighbors, classmates, workmates. Love of this country — true patriotism — means pushing America to do better by everyone who lives in America, so that fewer fall into lives of violent desperation. And “us” contains many more faiths, colors, and kinds than earlier generations knew. Some will respond to such complexity with fundamentalism. But for the most part, they will love us when they see themselves as us — as integrated co-creators of a purposeful American experiment. It’s up to all of us to make that happen.