- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2006

The thousands of illegal aliens protesting this past month have essentially been telling the American people the following:

“You knew we were illegal when we came here to work in silence. But you said nothing when we were hired at your low-paying jobs. Now when you think there are too many of us, you suddenly change the rules and tell us we alone are the lawbreakers and must leave.”

In their hurt and anger, the initial televised marchers carried Mexican flags and shouted about ethnic pride. This only turned off tens of millions of American viewers, who scoffed in response, “If Mexico is so great, why come here in the first place?”

As a result, politically astute advisers to the demonstrations charted a different course. At more recent rallies, protesters carried red, white and blue banners. And they’ve voiced a desire to become U.S. citizens.

This change in tactics, however, raises an important question. If American citizens are now to hold the crowds in the streets to their most recent incarnation, will most of the illegal-alien protesters truly wish to become full U.S. citizens with all that entails?

Remember, citizenship is never defined by the applicant, only by the benefactor. In America, it doesn’t involve racial or ethnic allegiance. Rather, U.S. citizenship asks immigrants to make linguistic, political and social concessions.

So, imagine an immigration compromise that, in exchange for strict border enforcement, allows the majority of the current 11 million resident illegal aliens to remain here to start their citizenship process. Wouldn’t it then be natural to expect these future Americans to understand U.S. citizenship carries as many responsibilities as rights?

In an increasingly multiethnic and multiracial country, it no longer makes sense to rely on bilingual government documents and services for a particular ethnic group. Such duplication is expensive and hampers English immersion. It’s also the road to tribalism, whose bitter fruits we know well from the Balkans to Rwanda. Those who now march professing their desire to become Americans must quickly learn the English language, as have hundreds of past immigrant groups.

As American citizens, newcomers must also realize no nation can remain sovereign without controllable borders. So Americans would hope they would support enforcing their new country’s border. Employer sanctions, more guards and a barrier will start to end the present unworkable system that led to their own ambiguous status in the first place.

Something is terribly wrong when thousands of skilled engineers and doctors from Canada, India and Mexico cannot easily obtain legal citizenship, while those who cut ahead by the millions and cross the border illegally almost find it de facto.

If we controlled the borders in exchange for allowing current resident illegals to apply for citizenship, future legal and measured immigration from Mexico, while perhaps somewhat greater than from other countries, would cease to be either large or exceptional. The present perpetually replenished pool of aggrieved second-class unlawful residents would soon vanish.

Also gone would be the romance of “Alta California” — the strange notion that demography and the labor market will do what the law cannot and extend Mexico into the Southwestern U.S. We could jettison the “the borders crossed us” nonsense that tends to radicalize a shadow underclass and return to the idea we are all part of a melting-pot society.

So, yes, we need to take our cue from the protesters whose placards and banners at last broadcast their genuine desire to join us as Americans. Let us, the hosts, help resident illegal aliens meet workable criteria to become citizens as we ensure an end to the broken system of open borders and labor exploitation. But let the present aliens only become Americans in the fullest linguistic, cultural and social sense — just as millions from all over the world have done before them.

Those of the left claim racism fuels the anger over illegal immigration. Those on the right agree — but insist instead that the racism really comes from La Raza separatism of unassimilated Hispanics.

Very soon we could learn who in this sad debate has been telling the truth about ethnic chauvinism. If conservatives would not worry over the ethnicity of these new Americans and thus allow most of those already here from Mexico to stay, the onus will rest with the ethnic activists to urge rapid and full assimilation.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author, most recently, of “A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.”

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