Becoming a Citizen – Part 4 – What is an American?


Immigration 101 tracks my course at Hofstra Law School.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, it was common to hear a blond-haired, blue-eyed, athletic young man described as “The All-American boy”. If you traveled to a foreign country and asked what an American looked like, you would probably get a similar description. Nationalist politicians often divided the country into “Real Americans” (White, Christian, and Native Born), and everybody else. The Civil Rights revolution broke the racial and religious hegemony over the concept of “American”, but its successor is in disputed.

Some, like Samuel Huntington, argue for a return to a modified version of the pre-Civil Rights “American”. They claim that America’s unique gifts arise from its Anglo Saxon Protestant roots. As Huntington once remarked, without those distinct characteristics the United States would be Quebec. If culture matters, then American culture can only continue to thrive if those who emigrate from Anglo Saxon Protestant countries predominate. Now most of these “Culture Matters” folks recognize that there are other countries that have absorbed Protestant values, but have not “converted”, and immigration from these nations would be consistent with the Huntington definition of American-ness.

A recent case in France illustrates the cultural requirement for citizenship. A conservative Muslim woman was denied French citizenship because she wore a burka and was characterized as submissive to males. In what has been called the first denial of French citizenship based on personal religious practice, the decision denying her application said that “[s]he has adopted a radical practice of her religion, incompatible with essential values of the French community, particularly the principle of equality of the sexes”.

In the United States, we had a long history of denying citizenship to people because of their identity. For example, until the early 1950s, legal immigrants from most of Asia were not allowed to become citizens. Koreans and Indians were just considered people from a culture fundamentally incompatible with American values. These racial/cultural barriers only fell because the United States realized that this institutionalized racism was hurting us in the competition with communism for the hearts and minds of Asia’s masses.

But, while it seems clear that legally barring immigrants from a specific race or religion from naturalizing is extremely unlikely in our country’s future,  might we find certain ideas, like a belief in female inferiority, fundamentally incompatible with becoming a United States citizen?

Read other parts of this series:

Immigration 101 is a comprehensive series on American immigration law for the layperson. This series tracks my course on immigration law at Hofstra Law School and answers many of your questions about immigration policy.

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