Immigration and Americanization

April 23, 2013 Topic: Human RightsSecurity Region: United States

Immigration and Americanization

The Boston bombings resurrect an old debate about whether new entrants should be injected with U.S. cultural values.

One of the unintended consequences of the Tsarnayev brothers’ decision to strike at the Boston Marathon with homemade explosive devices may be its impact on the national debate on immigration.

Already, some of the advanced technology firms in Silicon Valley who were pushing for major changes in how the United States admits immigrants are
concerned about the negative impacts that the case may have on their efforts. In particular, they are worried that in the wake of the Boston tragedy, new legislation might impose even more onerous background checks designed to screen for potential radicals seeking entry into the country and so discourage the talent, particularly from South Asia, that the tech firms hope to recruit. On Friday, Senator Charles Schumer pleaded with fellow lawmakers to "not jump to conclusions regarding the events in Boston or try to conflate those events with this legislation.”="#ixzz2r3acjkeq">

The Tsarnayev case will focus attention on two particular subsets of the debate on migration: the first is a possible reevaluation of current policies designed to admit refugees and asylum-seekers, particularly from war-torn areas; the second is the reopening of the debate on to what extent we need to reinstate "Americanization" efforts.

In the past, the United States has relied upon a version of the "gratitude doctrine" in its refugee policies: the idea that those fleeing war and strife would be particularly grateful to the United States for providing a safe haven, even if U.S. policy might have had direct or indirect responsibility for the troubles faced by their original homelands. Armenians fleeing the massacres during the First World War in the Ottoman Empire never took action against the United States for failing to prevent the killings. Jews who found refuge in America after the Holocaust never sought to take revenge against U.S. officials who could have done so much more to stop the Nazi extermination machine. East Europeans never targeted associates of Franklin Delano Roosevelt for their role in the Yalta accords that ended up delivering their homelands to Soviet control. As much as earlier waves of asylum seekers might have disagreed with U.S. policies—and even if they helped to organize paramilitary groups to target their original oppressors (as some diaspora Armenians living in America did when they helped to support the creation of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, listed by the U.S. State Department in as a terrorist organization)—they never attacked Americans.

In recent years, however, there have been concerns about naturalized Americans who leave the United States to join groups that carry out attacks against U.S. interests. For instance, in 2009 Somalis who had found safe haven in the United States were prosecuted for their attempts to return to Somalia to "wage jihad" and to join groups that are on the U.S. terrorism list. Moreover, there have been a growing number of plots hatched on U.S. soil and meant to target Americans that have been organized by those who found safe refuge in the United States and in many cases acquired U.S. citizenship. The 2007 Fort Dix plotters were largely ethnic Albanians from the former Yugoslavia whose families had found refuge in the United States. The 2009 Al-Qaeda plot to bomb the New York City subways included Najibullah Zazi, whose family had come to the United States from Afghanistan, and Adis Medunjanin, who had arrived in America from war-torn Bosnia in 1994.

The Tsarnayevs seem to fit a profile of people who might have acquired U.S. passports but saw citizenship largely in terms of identity documents and legal rights rather than joining the American community. One wonders whether there will be a repeat of the exchange between Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen who attempted to carry out a car bombing of Times Square in 2010. Asked by Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, "Didn't you swear allegiance to this country?" Shahzad replied, "I sweared, but I didn't mean it."

This trend has implications for the future. How open will U.S. politicians be to granting asylum to refugees fleeing the ongoing civil war in Syria if there is a risk that they or their children, blaming Washington for not doing more to help them in their struggle against the Assad regime, will sign up with radical groups that seek to do damage the United States? Senator Schumer noted that “we are much more careful about screening people and determining who should and should not be coming into the country.” But the legacy of the Tsarnayevs may be to negatively impact America's tradition of providing safe haven for those fleeing armed conflict if it is seen as damaging to U.S. domestic security.

Shahzad's comment at his sentencing—as well as more details about the Tsarnayevs' lives here in the United States—will also reopen questions about whether more ought to be done to encourage Americanization. In recent years, there has been a tendency to conflate acceptance of American pop culture, music and sports with political and cultural assimilation—and to assume that someone who listens to hip-hop or plays baseball is automatically a loyal American who can resist the recruitment pitch of extremist organizations. No one is suggesting a return to early-20th century programs which tried to forcibly prevent new immigrants from maintaining their original languages and culture, but more ought to be done to inculcate in new arrivals, particularly refugees, that becoming American is more than simply passing a citizenship test to obtain legal documents.

In the past, immigrants were encouraged to identify with the struggles of the Founding Fathers to create a new nation—so that even if they could not claim direct descent from the country's founders, they might nonetheless claim full status with the lineal descendants of those who were here at that time, as shared partakers of the American vision. Older ethnic and religious identities could be maintained but were expected to coexist alongside participation in a common American project, what Robert Bellah termed the American civil religion ("an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation"). The Tsarnayevs may have lived in America, but did they become American—or did they remain separate and isolated—and thus prey for radicalization?

No reform can guarantee foolproof results. Better screening of asylum seekers and migrants or a more robust Americanization program for newcomers can't guarantee that no immigrant in the future (or for that matter homegrown Americans) won't be tempted by the allure of what radical groups promise. But it may help to find greater balance between America's identity as a nation of immigrants with its need for national security.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.