What the immigration reform bill still needs

The eight senators who crafted an immigration reform bill deserve praise for finding a bipartisan compromise. But the bill needs a theme other than economics and security to help place immigration's role in defining the nation's identity.

An immigrant holds an American flag during a naturalization ceremony to become a US citizen in New York April 17.

Just as people often define themselves by the company they keep, a nation creates an identity by the immigrants it lets in. For that reason alone, it is instructive to look over the 844-page bill on immigration reform released Tuesday by a “gang” of eight senators.

The bipartisan bill, which the Senate will debate in coming weeks, seems more like tactical truces between the two parties than a vision on how to define American society through its immigrant flows. It contains difficult compromises designed to split political differences, all in hopes of pleasing – or at least not offending – the various constituencies of Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

The bill’s title – the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” – illustrates a general lack of grand ideals. Yes, better security and individual prosperity do matter. Yes, the United States needs both low- and high-skilled workers from abroad. And surely, the mass lawbreaking of undocumented workers needs a rectifying and humane resolution.

But shouldn’t a major move to legalize 11 million immigrants and open the doors to millions more at least offer a transcending mission that unifies the nation around its civic character?

At best, the document calls for a “just system for integrating those who seek to join American society.” But join for what?

In a 2011 speech, President Obama warned of the need to lift the immigration debate to a higher narrative:

“The truth is, we’ve often wrestled with the politics of who is and who isn’t allowed to enter this country,” he said. “These issues touch on deeply held convictions – about who we are as a people, about what it means to be an American.”

Past immigration laws were designed to help break down the potentially divisive identities of class, sect, and ethnicity and create a unifying theme. The theme was often based on ideals spelled out in the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents. But after many waves of immigrants, the US is seen less as a “melting pot” or even a “salad.” Some might describe it as a table of distinct tapas dishes.

If the bill passes, will American society become a “pudding without a theme,” to use a Churchill phrase? Modern countries that allow new immigrants need an identity centered on ideals – “bonds of affection,” as Lincoln put it – that are worthy of self-sacrifice. And certainly worth more than an economic imperative, a security patch, or a wider tolerance for diversity.

The nation’s motto, E pluribus unum (out of many, one), constantly needs to define that “one.” That happens in many ways – through elections, court decisions, and cultural trends. A new immigration law should be able to strike broadly at reshaping a national identity.

In designing the Great Seal of the United States, Founding Father Charles Thomson chose the words Novus ordo seclorum, or new order of the ages. But he insisted that it should really signify the “beginning of the new American Era.” Surely a new and hefty immigration bill can signify a new era for America that defines what sort of new company it wants to keep.

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