Jeb Bush’s recent backtracking on the question of whether we should grant legal residency but withhold citizenship to the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the country today is far less Draconian than some advocates for legalization are claiming. It is an idea that has been floated by others who support legalization, including scholar Peter Skerry of Boston College.
As Skerry points out in a recent article for National Affairs, not all immigrants — and certainly not all of those who came here illegally — want to become citizens. In 1986, when Congress granted legal status to approximately three million illegal immigrants living in the country at the time, only 41 percent eventually decided to naturalize.
Nonetheless, I think Bush is wrong — and not because his position is too conservative, but because it is not conservative enough.
Conservatives should not want a country in which substantial numbers of those who reside here will eschew participating in the civic life of the country, with its obligations as well as its rights. Living here and enjoying the fruits of all this country offers should impose certain duties.
We all should know the history of this nation, understand our republican form of government, and be active and knowledgeable participants in choosing our leaders. Clearly, these characteristics do not apply even to everyone who was born here — but we should be even more concerned that those we invite to live here, protected by our laws, should have the responsibility of participating in our civic life. It is not in our interest to have a two-tiered society in which a substantial number of those who have made their permanent homes in the United States are excluded from citizenship.
This policy of exclusion has been followed by other nations, with poor results. Germany, for example, for decades took in guest workers, who were denied eligibility for citizenship, along with their German-born children, until the early 1990s when Germany changed its laws. As a result, Germany became saddled with a large population of unassimilated, often embittered residents who had no allegiance to the nation in which they lived.
Conservatives are the champions of American exceptionalism, the notion that we are different from other nations. We are a nation whose people are bound by the Constitution. We are not a people bound by blood and soil, but rather, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “a nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and built by men and women who trace their origins to every part of the globe. We have successfully integrated millions of illiterate peasants from southern and eastern Europe, German and Scandinavian farmers, destitute Irish cottiers, and Asian laborers and fishermen, most of whom in their early migration came from largely feudal societies.
These earlier immigrants came to America much like the illegal immigrants of the past few decades. Early immigrants made dangerous and difficult trips and simply showed up on our shores (or crossed the land border from Mexico or Canada). There were no laws regulating much less barring entry until late in our history. Why should we doubt that we could accomplish the same thing with Hispanic immigrants, including the undocumented who gain legal status?
Instead of standing athwart history and yelling stop, conservatives should be at the forefront of helping those who gain legal status to become fully American. Conservatives should be doing everything they can to teach these newcomers English, to help them learn American history and civics, to imbue them with a sense of love for and devotion to their new country. Bush should be a leader in efforts to persuade his fellow conservatives to adopt this as their special mission.
If conservatives shun these 11 million people instead of helping them fully Americanize and embrace their civic obligations, we will cede their allegiance to liberals for generations to come. As a conservative (with the battle scars to prove it), I believe this would be a great tragedy, not only for the conservative movement and the Republican Party, but also for the future of America.