Citizenship Begins At Home: A New Approach to the Civic Integration of Immigrants

Peter Skerry
Peter Skerry Former Brookings Expert, Professor of Political Science - Boston College

January 1, 2003

For some time now, the debate over U.S. immigrant policy (which addresses the needs of immigrants already residing here, as opposed to immigration policy, which concerns how many and which immigrants should be admitted) has been stuck in an unproductive and divisive pattern. On one side are immigrant advocates, a relatively well-defined and cohesive coalition of civil rights organizations, immigrant activists, minority spokesmen and elected officials, human rights activists and civil libertarians, religious and church groups, and most recently labor unions—all of whom have been pushing for increased programmatic benefits and expanded rights for immigrants. On the other side are the immigrant-policy skeptics, a diffuse and disparate lot of fiscal conservatives, cultural conservatives, and business interests, who tend to embrace high levels of immigration but are not very enthusiastic about programs to support immigrants once they are here. What these skeptics share is the pervasive laissez-faire ideology that today’s immigrants, just like yesterday’s, can and do fend for themselves in taking advantage of the opportunities America affords them. In other words, immigrants do not need or merit any special help to become part of American society.

Both perspectives have strengths and weaknesses. Advocates are not wrong to focus on the material needs of immigrants, but as advocates tend to be, they are insufficiently attentive to the concerns of the broader political community. Moreover, the advocates’ emphasis on immigrant rights may place their demands squarely within the American political tradition, but nevertheless it reduces the array of obstacles confronting immigrants to a monocausal preoccupation with racial discrimination. While this perspective affords immigrant advocates the considerable moral capital of the civil rights movement, it fails to address the need for the structure and order that most of us—but especially economically marginal and geographically uprooted immigrants—need.