You may recall “Define American,” a nonprofit organization that, in its own words, “uses the power of story to transcend politics and shift the conversation about immigrants, identity, and citizenship in a changing America.”
The organization more or less exists to advance an argument made by former president Obama, that the Dreamers – and by extension, a significant number of those who entered the country illegally – were “American by any other name except for their legal papers.” Obama elaborated that they were Americans because they “want to serve this country, oftentimes want to go into the military or start businesses or in other ways contribute.”
Is being an American simply a matter of being within our borders and wanting to stay? Does it depend upon a desire to serve the country in some way? If you come here, have otherwise not broken the law beyond entering illegally, and want to start a business someday, does that make you American? Those legal papers that Obama wanted to hand-wave away have to count for something, don’t they? If they don’t matter at all, why do we have them?
At the heart of Define American’s agenda is the notion that “American” is defined far too narrowly. Their argument has caught on with quite a few Democrats – who want to decriminalize entering the country without permission, abolish ICE, increase the refugee cap, and create a path to citizenship for everyone who has entered the country illegally. Their argument is that once you get here, as long as you haven’t committed a violent crime, you are an American. Full stop.
(That definition of “violent crime” is pretty narrow. Earlier this year, Democrats argued that a conviction for drunk driving should not be sufficient to bar a Dreamer from permanent resident status. House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler said then, “This legislation is intended to recognize reality, that these people are Americans, that they are Americans in every sense except for a piece of paper.”)
It will probably not surprise you that I find these proposals to be asinine and dangerous, effectively declare to everyone in the world who wants to immigrate to America that they can come, with few if any questions asked. Citizenship cannot simply be a matter of location.
The Democrats’ proposals amount to genuinely open borders; anyone who’s been saying “no one is calling for open borders” is inattentive or dishonest. Quite a few people across the ideological spectrum supported that view for years, even if they’re quiet about it now. (Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine to Bill Moyers, way back in 2007: “This is a fantastic country that offers up unparalleled individual freedom and personal freedom to the people living here, including illegal immigrants. And I think, you know, we’re totally pro open borders.”)
But recent days have demonstrated the flip side of the “who’s an American?” argument. There’s evidence quite a few of our fellow citizens believe that your status as an American – or perhaps your status as a “real American,” instead of one who only qualifies under that little technicality called legal citizenship — depends upon what they think of your views. If they really don’t like your views, they think you’re not really an American, even if you happen to be born here.
It’s not just the Trump supporters who concur that Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and the rest aren’t “real Americans.” Richard Wolffe argues that Trump is “surely the most un-American president in living memory.” Contributors to New York Magazine argued whether Trump’s Independence Day event was “un-American.” Most of the Democratic presidential candidates have called Trump “un-American” at one point or another. If you are labeled “un-American,” are you not really an American?
It appears quite a few of us have a mental category for people that is labeled “technically American, but not really American.” This is the viewpoint that is the opposite of Define American’s argument: that American is currently defined far too broadly, and that many people who are technically Americans are not really Americans.
I concur with the argument that the likes of Omar Mateen, Johnny Walker Lindh, and Timothy McVeigh stopped being Americans in any way that matters once they chose to take up arms and harm their fellow citizens. I can see the argument that if you don’t believe in the principles of the American system – separation of Constitutionally defined and limited powers, free and fair elections, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, judicial review, etc., you are not really “American.” This would include anyone who wished to do away with our freedoms and institute a theocracy, or who wants Sharia law to replace secular law.
Then again, we have a lot of Americans who act as if inconvenient parts of the Constitution don’t exist, from lawmakers who ignore the Second Amendment, to those who are eager to crush the First Amendment’s freedom of speech by enacting severe economic consequences for expressing unpopular views, to those who seek to drive any display of any religious faith out of the public square, to cops who ignore the Fourth Amendment because they think they won’t get caught.
Are all of them merely mistaken or have they ventured into the status of being “not really American”? How about all of the American citizens who are jaw-droppingly ignorant about our Constitution?
In other words, does being an “American” mean sharing a set of beliefs? And if you don’t share in that set of beliefs, what are you? If you stopped being an American just for having a viewpoint that’s unpopular, stupid, outlandish, or even extreme, millions of people born and raised in this country would no longer be Americans.
Let me cut straight to my biggest concern. I see a short path between “that person’s not really an American because of her viewpoint,” and “that person’s not really an American because she’s an immigrant.” You might think that’s an overreaction, but Trump’s Sunday Twitter rant contended that AOC, Tlaib, and Pressley are immigrants.
I see this as the same category as Ann Coulter declaring that Trump should deport Nikki Haley or her earlier declaration that Haley “is an immigrant and does not understand America’s history.” Or South Carolina Democrat Dick Harpootlian’s pledge to send Haley “back to wherever the hell she came from.” The subtext is clear: “You’re not really one of us.” There are too many people who still assume that if your skin is tan or your name is hard to spell, you must be an immigrant. Asian-Americans, Latino Americans, Indian-Americans, Arab-Americans – they’ve all experienced far too many times, some version of:
“Where are you from?”
“No, I mean, originally?”
“I mean where is your family from, originally?”
Sometimes that’s mere curiosity. But sometimes that’s a need to figure out how to categorize and label someone.
Then again, maybe Charlie Cooke clarified it all earlier this week:
It is not only an acceptable cultural norm to expect immigrants to like America, to believe that it is worthwhile as it stands, to want to assimilate to its institutions and ways, and to avoid trying to overthrow its presumptions, it is a crucial one. There is a reason that we have the citizenship test that David mentions, and there is a reason, too, that one is not permitted to join the ranks if one is Communist or a Nazi, if one hopes to suppress religious liberty, or if one wants to overthrow the government: We expect the people who move here to meet basic standards, and we insist upon those standards before we treat them identically to those who have been brought up having the American tradition passed down to them by their parents. That many, if not most, do this admirably is a good thing.
It’s a common observation that many native-born Americans could not pass the U.S. citizenship test. Our intense political divisions stem in large part from this worsening civic ignorance. People don’t know what our branches of government are, what they do, and why checks and balances are important. They don’t understand why the federal government and state governments should have different powers and why state laws can and should be different. Half of the time when you hear someone begin a sentence, “there ought to be a law that–” what follows will be spectacularly unconstitutional. This isn’t just yokels. Our constitution bars religious tests for office, but Senator Dianne Feinstein voted against the judicial nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, declaring, “the dogma lives loudly within you.” Roy Moore declared that Muslims should not serve in Congress, and his spokesman Ted Crockett publicly insisted that public officials are required to be sworn into office in a Bible. (They are not.) Crockett served three terms as a county commissioner.
I don’t want to “redefine American” – either to make the definition broader or narrower — until more citizens bother to crack open a book and educate themselves what “American” has traditionally meant and currently means.
Meanwhile, out in the Rest of the World
The lengthy essay above means I have to just give you the highlights of the past 24 hours: Planned Parenthood terminated the presidency of Leana Wen in the third trimester; a Clinton aide says Joe Biden is “dangerously close to using Republican talking points” when criticizing Medicaid for All; Thomas Friedman says that Democrats have good reason to fear that Trump could win reelection, and the fundraising numbers were terrible for every Democratic candidate not named Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris, or Buttigieg.
ADDENDA: Whether or not you think it’s fair to call Trump “racist,” can anyone plausibly argue that Trump never draws conclusions about people based upon their ethnicity? Even after his declaration that Judge Curiel couldn’t be fair because he “is a Mexican”, his objection that Native Americans opening casinos “don’t look like Native Americans,” that Jeb Bush “has to like the Mexican illegals because of his wife,” that “I do like Ted Cruz, but not a lot of Evangelicals come out of Cuba,” and interrupting an intelligence briefing about Pakistan to ask a Korean-American briefer “where are you from?” and referring to her as the “pretty Korean lady”. . . Trump constantly draws conclusions about people based upon where they come from and what ethnicity they are. At some point we’re being dishonest with ourselves if we pretend it’s not happening.