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How to become an American

"Captains courageous" Puck, v. 53, no. 1374 (1903 July 1). Udo J Keppler, American. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)

Charles Pierce has a suggestion:

To me, you become an American when you acknowledge within yourself that the country doesn’t belong to you. That it is something held in common by the Italian butcher, and the French-Canadian mechanic, and the Irish cop from a parish different from yours. That it is something that will be held in common by the Cambodian store owner and the Salvadoran kid whose parents went through the hell at the border to get him here, and who grew up and became a Marine, and who now works stocking shelves for the Cambodian guy while he waits for the country he served to get around to deciding if there is a piece of it he can have. You become an American, finally, when you admit there are other Americans, and that these Americans build their own personal Americas of the mind and of the heart, and that they do it through what they brought here from countries far away.

This is what should animate the political debate we are having over immigration: the common acknowledgement that people other than ourselves always have had a purchase on the country’s promise and, if the country bucked and pulled and resisted them, sooner or later, it would return to its senses and grudgingly, demanding work on both sides, give up enough of itself to admit the new Americans over the sometimes noxious objections of the old. My grandfather came here because he didn’t want to be a priest. My grandmother came here because being a domestic worker looked like a better deal than tending the flocks on the hills outside Listowel. Today, there are people coming here because trimming the Romney hedges looks like a better deal than living amid the drug violence in Sinaloa, or scratching out a living farming a pock-marked hillside in El Salvador. We must have a policy on this issue and it has to make sense. But first, the rest of us have to admit something that the old WASP establishment and the Nativist mobs were forced to admit long ago. America belongs to nobody and it belongs to everybody. Admit that, and you’ve become an American.

If you want a sound track for this, here’s Woody.

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