Volume 25/1996-1997 contents | Duke Policy News Online | Sanford Institute

Citizenship has often been viewed by immigrants as something not worthwhile.


Immigrants and Citizenship Values

Noah Pickus is worried that today's U.S. immigrants are shut out of the political process. They are not encouraged to vote and are taught very little about how the American political system works.

Pickus, whose research focuses on immigrant policies, speaks passionately about why it is important for policymakers to closely examine the ways that newcomers are incorporated into American society.

"Instead of focusing on who's coming here, one of the things that I argue is it's more important to focus on what they will become or won't become," says Pickus, one of the Institute's newest assistant professors. "I think that our processes for incorporating immigrants have changed significantly, in some ways for the better and in many ways for the worse, in terms of turning newcomers into full members of the community."

Back in the 1920s, when the last major wave of immigration occurred, there was "an active massive attempt by the federal government and local government, chambers of commerce, local voluntary organizations, to teach immigrants what it means to be an American," Pickus says.

Although much of what the immigrants were taught in the 1920s was based on mainstream, white cultural values, "it was an organized attempt to say there is a public sphere here, we have a common notion of what is citizenship and we want you to become a part of it," Pickus says.

Pickus, who grew up in northern California, noted that his grandfather was encouraged to vote as soon as he arrived in the country-even before he had become a citizen.

"Now that's not the way you're supposed to do it," Pickus acknowledges, "but the Pendergast machine in Kansas City got him off the boat and got him to vote. The long run of that story is that he became integrated into the polity. That doesn't exist as much anymore."

Civic education courses are available for today's immi-grants, but aren't emphasized, he notes. "The civic education programs I examined essentially, for practical, political and theoretical reasons, gave up on the notion that you could teach anything about being a citizen."

One group of people argue today that "citizenship is a cultural definition and you have to be one version of white to sign up," Pickus says. The opposing view holds that there's no need for an immigrant to "undergo any transformation because you come with your own personhood and your rights and with your ability to participate in local politics if you want."

Pickus says the end result is that "citizenship has often been viewed by immigrants as something not worthwhile."

Until a year or two ago, the naturalization rate for immigrants, especially those from Latin America and Mexico, was quite low, Pickus adds. "It's a complicated story, but part of it is there is very little there for a newcomer to want to be a citizen. Immigrants don't gain many new rights because they're already afforded many of the rights of citizenship. Legality is important, but being a citizen isn't necessarily important."

In response to legislation like Proposition 187 in California, however, there has been a recent jump in naturalization rates. Pickus thinks Proposition 187, which seeks to limit government benefits and programs available to illegal immigrants, was motivated partly by economic concerns and racism and partly by "broader questions of legality and citizenship and American identity."

"I think 187 is kind of a crude response to questions of 'Who's in and who's out?' and 'How do we know?' and 'How do we determine for those who are in what we owe them and what obligations they owe in response?'"

Immigrants do become incorporated into the American economy and popular culture, Pickus notes. Those who settle in Los Angeles, for example, will root for the Dodgers, but it is unclear how they will define their sense of national identity or if an American identity will matter to them at all, he says.

Most immigrants are really interested in learning about their new country, Pickus says. "What's remarkable is when these civic education programs are offered, immigrants respond. Whereas a lot of advocates for immigrants are saying, 'No, these programs are too much of a burden,' the immigrants show up for twice the number of hours required for these programs. To them, this whole place is a mystery."

Prior to coming to Duke, Pickus taught classes on American politics, immigration and citizenship at Middlebury College in Vermont while finishing up his Ph.D. in political science from Princeton. At Duke, he will teach ethics and public policy; immigration, ethnicity and citizenship; and pluralism and the law.

"My courses, like my research, strive for a middle ground between abstract philosophy and concrete policy," he says. "My aim is to analyze wholes, not parts, to link political thought to public policy and the institutional framework of politics rather than to consider theory and practice as separate projects."

-Keith Lawrence, Duke University News Service. Reprinted with permission from the Duke Dialogue.

Volume 25/1996-1997 contents | Duke Policy News Online | Sanford Institute