Help Wanted: Bold Leadership on Immigration

If there’s one thing Americans agree on, it’s that the United States is a nation of immigrants. Virtually everyone came from somewhere at some time. Even more important, though, is the fact that, after they arrived, they became Americans.

Sure, some people hyphenate. One can be African-American, Chinese-American or Italian-American, but there’s an “American” in there somewhere. This country was built by immigrants who understood they were indeed building something valuable. They assimilated to their new land.

In a matter of weeks, federal lawmakers plan to renew their efforts to send a much-needed piece of immigration reform legislation to President Bush’s desk. However, it’s not yet clear whether this Congress and this administration will be willing to face down some of the powerful interest groups that aim to exploit immigration for political advantage. Our leaders must show courage if our country is going to welcome a new generation of immigrants and turn them into Americans.
One reason lawmakers failed to pass a bill last year is that radical-left Hispanic interest groups and coalitions geared up for a series of protests. These ended up backfiring.

Instead of galvanizing support for their cause, liberal Hispanic interest groups sparked outrage among many Americans. Last year’s nationwide immigration marches made an indelible impression on the minds of many and enhanced the fear that the current immigration wave is imposing another culture and language on our country.

By waving foreign flags in our major cities and shouting incendiary language, protesters gave anti-immigration forces plenty of ammunition. When all was said and done, we were left without a new immigration law, without adequate border enforcement and without a consensus on how to move forward.

Sadly, although our country has shown tremendous resilience in transforming new arrivals into proud patriots, liberal Hispanic interest groups pose a serious threat to this process with their words and actions. They encourage the promotion of Spanish in our public schools and resist the teaching of American culture and heritage. But that’s a false choice. As a first generation Hispanic-American immigrant, I’m living proof that it is possible to love one’s heritage and also become a patriotic American.

Comprehensive immigration reform will never become a reality unless Hispanic-American interest groups are willing to set aside the agitating language they used in last spring’s marches and extend a hand of good faith to unite rather than divide our country.

A good way to begin would be by promoting patriotic assimilation. That will mean teaching newcomers to understand and appreciate American civics, American history and the English language. As Ed Feulner, president of The Heritage Foundation, recently wrote, “It is time for a new approach, one that unites all Americans instead of dividing them, and one that stops putting the children of immigrants at an economic disadvantage” — a disadvantage caused by an ignorance of English, the language of international commerce.

The United States can’t afford to promote the creation of a group of second-class citizens who receive government-funded Spanish-speaking programs and services that serve only to further suppress economic progress among recent arrivals.

As the contentious debate nears, we should underscore the importance of ensuring that all freedom-loving people who come to the U.S. legally should be able to become Americans, regardless of race and creed.

Hispanic-Americans find themselves at an important crossroads of our country’s history, similar to the German and the Irish of the mid-19th century, who were confronted with the choice of gradually assimilating to the United States or hanging on to the allegiances of the old country.

Rather than politicize the debate, Hispanic leaders should seize the opportunity to reaffirm the virtues of equality, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. They’re living in the greatest country on the face of the earth. It’s time to help make it even better.

Israel Ortega is a media relations associate at The Heritage Foundation.