»  National Review Online

November 19th, 2002

  The National Question

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Matters of law and law enforcement relating to immigration and citizenship continue to offer the most compelling evidence that the people of the United States, or at any rate their cognitive elites, are bent on collective national suicide.

Item: Following the 9/11 attacks on this country, an Aviation and TransportationSecurity Act was passed by the U.S. Congress, and signed into law on November 19 last year. The act specifies, among other things, that all personnel who screen passengers and property must be U.S. citizens. Airports have had one year to remove all non-citizens from these jobs and replace them with citizens. That one year grace period expires this week.

Around 8,000 non-citizens working as airport security screeners under the previous dispensation have lost their jobs as a result of the new law. Inevitably, a number of parties, including the Service Employees International Union and the Southern California ACLU, have sued to have the citizenship provision of the Act declared unconstitutional. Last week U.S. District Judge Robert Takasugi issued an injunction blocking enforcement of the citizenship clause until the courts have resolved the issue. That might, of course (and probably will) take several years. Until there is some final resolution, those who lost their jobs are eligible to re-apply, to become federal employees.

Now, it is of course true that in the wake of a trauma like 9/11, there is always the possibility that a government might force through unreasonable and unconstitutional measures in panic. There are people who will tell you that the exclusion of non-citizens from airport screening jobs is an instance of that. Plainly this is what the ACLU thinks. The way they see it, people are being deprived of their rights. The fact that the people concerned are not U.S. citizens is not relevant, they will tell you, pointing to the Due Process clause in the 14th Amendment: "[N]or shall any State … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Note that the word there is "person," not "citizen." If it is unlawful for a citizen to be fired from his job without proper cause, then it is equally unlawful for a non-citizen to be fired under the same circumstances. So the argument goes.

I am not competent to judge the constitutional niceties here. It does seem to me, though, that there is a case to be made, in the age we live in, for treating non-citizens quite differently from citizens. If the Constitution does indeed prohibit that, then the case becomes an argument for changing the Constitution — a thing that from time to time we find it wise to do.

I believe, in fact, that the very blithe attitude that Americans have traditionally had towards matters of citizenship and immigration is fast becoming untenable. I say "Americans" rather than "we Americans" because there seems to be a clear division here between "newer" and "older" Americans. It is interesting to note that the two most critical, radical books on U.S. immigration policy this past 10 years were written by Peter Brimelow, a naturalized American born in England, and Michelle Malkin, American-born daughter of recent immigrants from the Philippines. I'm not arguing for any superior innate wisdom on the part of newcomers, but I do think that having some outside perspective on citizenship, either by having been born abroad, or from growing up with foreign-born parents, gives you a clearer picture of the issues involved.

All those issues come under the heading of The National Question. What does it actually mean to be an American? What should it mean? Those of us who have actually arm-wrestled with the INS and deliberated about settling here, or were raised by people who did those things, have at least been forced to think about this. I don't mean to be unkind to anyone, or to sound arrogant about it, but it sometimes seems to me that Americans with deeper roots in this country never think about The National Question from one year's end to the next.

I don't believe this can go on much longer. We are all going to have to think hard about The National Question, about issues like the following.

All sorts of knotty issues are involved here. Focus on that word "religion," for example. Islam is now one of our major domestic religions, with millions of adherents here. Some of them have come from abroad, but large numbers, mostly black, are Americans who have been converted. Now, religious toleration is one of the founding principles of this country, and I don't see how we can deny it to Muslims while remaining true to our core principles. On the other hand, Islam contains strong and important strains that are very intolerant indeed, and that therefore go against the grain of classical Americanism. (James Q. Wilson has a very good piece dealing with some of this in the current City Journal.) How tolerant should we be of intolerance?

Further, belief in Islam opens up the believer to the attentions of foreign powers. Some of those powers are hostile to our interests and would be happy to subvert and harm us if they could. This is a new thing in our national life, an issue that never arose with Christianity,*  Judaism, Buddhism, or any other faith. Would we be wise to restrict immigration from Muslim countries? Or even, as one commentator has suggested, to ask Muslim non-citizens to leave when their business here is finished?

This and the other, related issues are getting very acute. In a way, that is a paradox. We live, after all, in the age of globalization, when the differences between nations are melting away, when you can eat an identical MacDonalds hamburger in Baltimore, Beijing or Berlin. To ask Americans to become more conscious of their nationality in such an age seems absurd. The kind of things we read on MEMRI, though, remind us that the cultural homogenization of the human race has quite a way to go yet. The traditional insouciance of Americans towards citizenship and immigration belonged to a time when the country was empty, travel was difficult, and an ethic of assimilation was taken for granted by everyone — conditions that apply less and less every year.

Here is a modest proposal, the kind of thing that, in my opinion, ought to be at the center of national debate.

There can be no second-class citizenship in America. There is, however, no reason at all why we should not have radically different standards towards civil liberties for non-citizens than we have for citizens. We might, for example, have a "probationary" system for resident non-citizens, imposing all sorts of restrictions and requirements on them, government agencies licensed to collect all kinds of information on them. Then, when a person becomes a citizen, the restrictions and requirements vanish, and the gathered information is purged by law from the databases. What would be wrong with that? What, exactly, would be wrong with it? A resident non-citizen who did not like this regime would be free to return to his own country. One who decided to go for citizenship could be assured that, if he attained it, he would have the same rights as any other citizen.

I can see some of the difficulties here (how are we going to trust government bureaucrats to thoroughly purge those databases?) but I don't think they are insuperable. In any case, I am only putting up the kind of thing I believe we ought to be discussing. At the moment, if you even raise your head above the parapet on these issues, you are shot down as a "nativist"  or "racist."  That can't go on. Things are getting serious.

Here's a prediction: over the next two or three presidential-election cycles, The National Question will become a major issue in U.S. politics, about which candidates will be expected to hold clear opinions. In matters of citizenship and immigration, the age of insouciance will be over.

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* Though a case used to be made against Catholics on these grounds. Was their first loyalty to the President in Washington, or to the Pope in Rome? Since the Papacy has not been a temporal power of any consequence since the 17th century, though, I don't think the issue was ever a really pressing one, and it pretty much vanished from the life of the nation with the election of John F. Kennedy.