July 31, 2021

On Gratitude and Immigration


Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Like both Rich and David, I consider it flatly inappropriate for the president of the United States to be telling Americans — rhetorically or otherwise — to “go back where you came from.” In consequence, you will find no defense of the president from me, either. What Trump tweeted over the weekend was typically stupid and it was typically counterproductive, and it deserves nothing less than has been aimed at it.

But not all criticisms are alike, and, while I agree with his conclusion, I nevertheless have quite a few problems with David’s broader argument. This passage especially bothered me:

Let’s also deal with the idea that the one actual immigrant Trump targeted owes a special debt of gratitude to the country and therefore temper her critiques of American politics and culture. I believe Ilhan Omar is a toxic presence in American politics. Her critiques are deeply misguided. But she should temper her critiques because they’re wrong, not because she’s an immigrant.

The blessings of liberty accrue to all Americans, including immigrants. And while all Americans should be deeply grateful for their freedoms and for American opportunity, it’s a simple fact that immigrant citizens have actually done something to earn their status. They’ve often migrated here at great personal cost, learned a new language, built a life in a new land, passed a test most Americans can’t pass, and then swore an oath that most Americans have never sworn.

By contrast, what must natural-born citizens do to earn their citizenship? Survive labor and delivery. That’s it. If anything, natural-born citizens should exercise the most gratitude. What did we do to earn our liberty?

I disagree with almost all of this. Legally, Ilhan Omar has exactly the same rights as someone born here. And she should, without exception. Culturally, though, the idea that Omar does not “owe a special debt of gratitude to the” United States is ridiculous, as is the idea that Omar’s views of the United States should not be affected by that debt. Of course she should be grateful! The United States saved her from a warzone, let her stay, accepted her as a citizen, and then elected her to Congress. If one can’t be grateful for that, what can one be grateful for?

Should Omar “temper her critiques of American politics and culture”? That depends. Again: Legally, Omar should enjoy every Constitutional protection available. And, as a matter of course, she should feel able to take part in the political process on the same terms as everyone else. But, culturally, it is absolutely reasonable for Omar’s critics to look at her behavior and say, “really, that’s your view of us?” It’s absolutely reasonable for Omar’s fellow Americans to dislike her and to shun her as a result. It is absolutely reasonable for them to consider her an ingrate — or to believe, as David does, that she is “a toxic presence in American politics.” And it is absolutely reasonable for them to wonder aloud how a person who hails from a dysfunctional, dangerous place built atop dysfunctional, dangerous institutions can exhibit the temerity — the sheer gall — to talk about America in the way that she does. There is a big difference between saying “I oppose current federal tax policy” or “I want more spending on colleges” or “the president is an ass,” and saying that America needs complete rethinking. As this Washington Post piece makes clear, Omar isn’t just irritated by a few things. She thinks the place is a disaster.

It is also absolutely reasonable for Americans to be alarmed that Omar is being encouraged, both implicitly and explicitly, by a worrying number of politicians and public figures — figures who, in any sane culture, would want newcomers of all stripes to believe the place they’d ended up in was virtuous. Last week, Beto O’Rourke told a bunch of refugees and other immigrants that America was a tainted, bigoted, white-supremacist nation, flawed in every particular, stained structurally to the core, and institutionally set against them. And he did so in public — for public consumption! — because he thought it would help him politically. That way lies cultural suicide. It is not only fine for Americans to be appalled by O’Rourke and his ilk, it is necessary.

As for David’s second argument, I can’t help but feel that he is getting pretty close here to suggesting that immigrants are in some way “more American” than native-born Americans simply because they chose to be here. Or, at the very least, I can’t help but feel that he is getting close to suggesting that immigrants should be less grateful for America’s blessings than should those who merely had to “be born” to enjoy them. I object to both these contentions. By definition, immigrants to the United States either chose to come here because they thought it was better than where they were born, or were forced to come here because the places they were in beforehand were too dangerous for them to stay in. It seems to me that it is far, far more normal for a person to feel gratitude at being allowed to move to a place of his choosing — a place in which he thinks he’ll be happier or safer or richer or freer — than to feel gratitude at merely being born somewhere by accident. David enjoys the Constitution’s protections because he was born within its jurisdiction. I enjoy them because I asked nicely and was allowed in by the existing citizenry. I should be the more grateful of the two of us.

This difference also affects what we should expect of immigrants compared to the native-born. Americans such as David effectively just “woke up” here; Americans such as myself explicitly chose to move here, explicitly chose to become citizens, and explicitly chose to make the promises and oaths that were associated with both. If those who merely “woke up” here don’t like the status quo, they bear no responsibility for that whatsoever. If those who chose to move here don’t like the status quo, they bear a lot of responsibility, because, unlike those who were born into it, they knew exactly what they were getting into (this isn’t true for refugees, but, as discussed earlier, they have their own reasons for eternal gratitude).

Lest I be misunderstood, I will reiterate that I do not think that there should be any legal differences between how immigrants such as myself engage politically and how native-born Americans such as David engage politically. I am for the Constitution, and for equal protection for all. But I do think that it is reasonable for native-born Americans to recoil when people who elected to come here try to make sweeping changes to the American system — or, even worse, when those people buy into the idea that the United States is corrupt and evil from the root. It is not only an acceptable cultural norm to expect immigrants to like America, to believe that it is worthwhile as it stands, to want to assimilate to its institutions and ways, and to avoid trying to overthrow its presumptions, it is a crucial one. There is a reason that we have the citizenship test that David mentions, and there is a reason, too, that one is not permitted to join the ranks if one is Communist or a Nazi, if one hopes to suppress religious liberty, or if one wants to overthrow the government: We expect the people who move here to meet basic standards, and we insist upon those standards before we treat them identically to those who have been brought up having the American tradition passed down to them by their parents. That many, if not most, do this admirably is a good thing. But there is no need to lionize them at the expense of everybody else simply because the president is imprecise in his language — or worse.

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Charles C. W. Cooke
National Review