What does it mean to be an American today? That question is at the heart of America's ongoing struggle to modernize its immigration laws. For some, it's more than a rhetorical question.
The issue is a deep-seated worry. Some opponents of liberalized immigration laws fear that allowing in more immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, will change what it means to be an American.
This anxiety is actually a healthy one. We should be thinking about how the possible legalization of 11 million illegal immigrants may affect our country's identity. The same is true for the legal immigrants who would be coming to our towns, cities and states through a revised system.
The question comes with moral and ethical overtones. The Dallas Morning News' Texas Faith panelists took them on during a discussion last month.
Keri Day, an African-American religion professor at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, wrote that being an American is about having a "democratic disposition." Here's how she put it:
"Having grown up in a conservative evangelical environment, I was taught that being an American was about Christian values, patriotism and embracing hard work. As I entered into college, my musings on the 'American' ideal underwent profound transformation. After completing undergraduate and post-graduate studies, my concept of what it means to be 'American' was less about a particular identity (Christian, native-born, etc.) and more about the cultivation of important democratic virtues upon which this nation has always striven toward."
Many panelists took a similar line, and I think they are right. Our identity is wrapped up in our values. That is what should give us hope that the American experiment will continue, no matter how many immigrants come here.
We do not have the secular equivalent of the Nicene Creed. Yet we define ourselves by the values we hold close to our American hearts, starting with the declarative lines of the Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
The authors of the Senate's immigration bill that passed last week get that our values define us. That is a central reason to like this proposal and not fear it.
They devoted a significant section of the legislation to ways in which immigrants seeking citizenship can learn about essential American values. The legislation would create an Office of Citizenship and New Americans. Its purpose would be working with a range of groups and communities to help immigrants understand what it means to become an American. Part of the effort would be helping immigrants speak English.
This emphasis may not relieve the anxiety of all. But this legislation takes seriously the issue of assimilation.
Integrating into American society is a two-way street, of course. For this process to work, new citizens must make these essential values their own.
At the same time, they come as Nigerians, Mexicans and Vietnamese, among other nationalities. They will not forget the habits, practices and traditions of their native lands.
America is broadened by them, too. Acts as simple as immigrants from Africa and Latin America taking a soccer ball to a park and playing as they did in their homelands enrich our culture. More far reaching, the many immigrant churches that pop up in our cities provide social stability.
These add-ons keep us from becoming a stagnant society. The trick is making sure they do not become symbols of a separate world.
Assimilation is part of who we are as Americans. We make and remake ourselves all the time. Yet we stand as one because of our values. We will stand for the national anthem on the Fourth of July as one people, even if our roots trace us back to some other land. The Senate's immigration law won't change that reality, only enhance it.
William McKenzie, editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News; firstname.lastname@example.org.