The DREAM Act, a bill that would have put some undocumented immigrants who arrived in this country before they were 16 on a path to citizenship, failed to pass the Senate in part because Republicans are in full anti-immigrant mode. But it also failed because not one American leader urged us to seriously consider what it means to be American in the 21st century.
I’m not a flaming liberal on immigration issues. I don’t believe, as some activists have insisted, that illegal immigrants should be given the right to vote in municipal elections. I am concerned about the growing number of immigrants — particularly wealthy ones — who choose dual citizenship for themselves and their children, a practice I fear leads to split or weakened loyalties. I understand that we can’t simply open our borders to all.
Still, critics of the DREAM Act are wrong to think the legislation would somehow encourage illegal immigration and diminish the value of U.S. citizenship. That kind of thinking stems from opponents thinking of citizenship in only the most narrow, legal terms. Ultimately, national citizenship and the rules that govern it are meant to limit membership. The assumption, of course, is that the people the rules govern are foreigners, who stand on the outside looking in, desperate to qualify for membership in an exclusive club but ignorant about its culture and traditions.
The DREAM Act was meant to benefit a very different group: the already Americanized children of illegal immigrants who, as one undocumented student recently wrote, may have fallen asleep in Michoacan one day and awakened the next in Boyle Heights. It was designed to legalize the status of young people who did not themselves break the law to come here, but were brought unwittingly and often have no memory of any other home. Moreover, the law would have applied only to those who had shown a commitment to education or joined the military. In other words, the DREAM Act would have legally conferred Americanness on individuals who were already rooted culturally, geographically in the United States, and in the promise of the American dream.
I believe, as the late liberal philosopher Richard Rorty once wrote, that love of nation is a necessary requirement for making a country a better place to live. Today, air travel, international trade and digital technology have blurred all sorts of jurisdictional lines between nation states. But when push comes to shove, I think nations should require their citizens to choose one loyalty over all others. And the DREAM Act was aimed precisely at people who have done that.
Patriotism is rooted in attachment to home and community, and the DREAM Act was written to benefit people who demonstrated their attachment by pursuing an education or through service to the country. In the late 18th century, when the U.S. was new, it was this sort of patriotism and love of country that the founders expected from anyone who wanted to become a citizen.
The debate over the DREAM Act was disappointing in part because it was a wasted opportunity to explore the connection between community and patriotism, to examine geographic rootedness and what it means to be American. It was our chance to begin understanding Americanness more broadly as encompassing loyalty to and common fate with the people who share our towns and cities.
It’s not that legality does not matter. It does. This country, like any other, has the right — and the need — to police its borders. But when we deny legal status to young people who have spent most of their lives here, have no other country and are American in everything but legal status, we miss the point and ultimate benefit of patriotism, which is to make our country and its thousands of communities more cohesive and better places to live.
The DREAM Act, which was first introduced a decade ago, is dead for now but almost certainly will be taken up again one day. Next time, proponents should push a broader, more illuminating discussion of what it means to be American.