Now that immigration reform has been rushed to the top of the agenda by Democrats on a roll, and with the compliance of dispirited Republicans, it seems we have placed the mechanics of reform ahead of a far larger issue that can not be fixed by legislation, but begs serious reflection.
Putting aside issues like a path to citizenship and how to track illegal immigrants more effectively, here is what we ultimately need to decide: Do we choose to be a nation comprised of individuals, or groups? Do we want to identify ourselves as unique individuals united first and foremost by our common identity as Americans, or by our race, ethnicity or gender? Are we still a melting pot, or have we become a mosaic? A composite or component nation?
E Pluribus Unum was for most of two centuries at the heart of the American identity. Out of many, one. This was the appeal for immigrants who have played a large part in shaping our heritage. But now more than ever, Americans are being identified by their various group memberships. Perhaps Al Gore was actually on to something when he flipped the meaning of E Pluribus Unum to “out of one, many” during the 2000 presidential campaign.
The heart of the problem is the success of this identity-based politics,. Exhibit A is last Election Day, when the left’s strategy of targeting voters by group identity was a spectacular success. It was the key to re-electing a failed president who is now feeling his oats.
When an electoral strategy works, it forms a blueprint for future campaigning…and governing. So expect this strategy to continue unabated. The Republicans know it, and have now been forced aboard the immigration train as they flail around desperately seeking to find themselves and grab more than the pathetic 27% of the Hispanic vote garnered by Mitt Romney.
So where does that leave the nation? Well, the influx of illegals that has now swelled to some 12 million by most estimates might not be such a problem if they had entered a society that still affirmed and upheld the need for a common cultural identity.
This is not primarily their fault but ours, because we no longer have even a vague and informal requirement to become a part of our common culture, and are not steadfast in our enforcement of the law. And honestly, would you categorically rule out doing the same thing as these illegals if you were desperate, or just seeking a better life for your family?
That we are a nation of immigrants is undeniable. In days gone by, particularly during the waves of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, people from all over the world flooded our shores and formed communities with their own ethnic identities. But they never forgot the reasons why they came here, the unparalleled individual freedom and opportunity that endowed them with a deep love for this nation and all for which it stands. And they identified themselves first and foremost as Americans. Not Italian-Americans, or Irish-Americans, or Chinese-Americans, but Americans.
America writ large felt secure in the assumption that these new Americans must really love this nation if they were willing to abandon their lives in the old country to be a part of it.
We no longer have such security. We no longer even attempt to convince immigrants to follow the example of previous generations by assimilating without losing their distinct heritage. We instead encourage them to break off into their own subcultures.
Indeed, the insidious influence of political correctness – in all its manifestations – has partitioned this once-composite nation into component pieces. African-Americans. Hispanic-Americans. Asian-Americans. We have become a hyphenated nation.
Sure, we have to take hold of the immigration problem. We need to figure out what to do with those who are already here illegally, how to secure the borders going forward, keep more high-skilled immigrants here, and implement a secure and workable system based on 21st century technology.
It seems the best we can do is to be generous with those illegal immigrants willing to pay the same price for legal status as those who are currently doing so, and unforgiving with those who refuse to comply with the new laws. For a new set of laws without viable remedies, and a willingness to enforce those remedies, will either have little effect or make the problem worse, as it did when we granted a blanket amnesty to more than three million illegal immigrants in 1986.
But all of that matters far less than the metaphysical question of whether we still value E Pluribus Unum. The answer will reveal the very character of the nation.