Boston and Immigration Reform: Yes, It’s Relevant

National Review Online | Published on April 20, 2013

By Stanley Kurtz

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The mainstream press is filled with stories and opinion pieces about the connection between the Boston bombings and the immigration reform bill. The point in common is a near-total failure to grapple with the weightiest Boston-related argument critics of the bill have offered – that the terror attack is an extreme symptom of a far broader problem, the breakdown of our system of patriotic assimilation.

While story after story recounts Ann Coulter’s sarcastic tweet (“It’s too bad Suspect #1 won’t be able to be legalized by Marco Rubio, now.”), not a single story sees fit to discuss the Hudson Institute briefing paper by John Fonte and Althea Nagai (“America’s Patriotic Assimilation System is Broken“) that, coincidentally, effectively explains the connection between the Boston attacks and immigration reform. John O’Sullivan has pointed to this paper and its significance in light of the marathon bombings, and Paul Mirengoff has expanded on the point. Yet so far the press has been more interested in conveying its scarcely concealed horror at tweets by a few conservatives than in coming to terms with an extended argument.

Ann Applebaum’s op-ed, “The connection between Boston and Europe’s train bombers,” is the welcome exception to this media rule. Applebaum cites the parallel between the Boston bombers and the second-generation European Muslims behind terror attacks in Madrid, London, and other European cities. Although these second-generation Muslim bombers were educated and raised in Europe, the gap between their relatively unassimilated parents and their new cultural environment proved disorienting. So while many of these young men knew and practiced the ways of their European homelands, they still felt out of place. Without a clear identity, some turned to radical Islam for an anchor.

Pointing to the London 7/7 bombers, John O’Sullivan makes essentially the same point, yet emphasizes that the underlying culprit is Britain itself. Britain’s abandonment of its patriotic self-confidence in pursuit of a hollow multiculturalism offers nothing solid for its immigrants to hold onto. Cultural self-confidence is the true key to immigrant assimilation – and fully compatible with respect for a wide variety of ethnicities and religions, as Americans once knew. Fonte and Nagai drive home that point.

Thanks to the rise of multiculturalism and bilingualism in the United States, our assimilation system now suffers from the same flaws as its European counterpart. The proposed immigration bill does little to fix this, and if anything aggravates an already critical situation. Without fixing our system of patriotic assimilation first (Fonte offers suggestions for how to do that), a path to citizenship will surely do more harm than good.

The number of immigrants who might someday turn into terrorists is small. Yet it only takes a few to cause trouble. And terrorism is only an extreme symptom of a far larger problem. A massive new wave of only superficially assimilated citizens would undercut the shared civic beliefs that have long held America together. On top of that, the new wave of Republican support for immigration reform assumes a pattern of assimilation that is no longer typical of this country.

So the Boston bombings are a wake-up call that ought to place the broader issue of assimilation at the center of our immigration debate. America’s experiment with multiculturalism has made us more like Europe when it comes to patterns of assimilation (or lack thereof) and less like the America of old. Although the implications of this change include the danger of terrorism, they extend to the strength of our shared ideas of citizenship. Fonte and Nagai show that our ideals citizenship, civic participation, and constitutional government have all been weakened by the breakdown in patriotic assimilation.

Turning to the latest spate of articles on the Boston-immigration connection, it’s clear that including the missing assimilation issue would thoroughly transform the debate. One common argument, for example, is that Boston is irrelevant because the Tsarnaevs were legal immigrants. But if patriotic assimilation is failing even for legal immigrants with years of experience in America, then a path to citizenship would only aggravate the problem (in the absence of the deeper reforms proposed by Fonte and Nagai).

Another popular argument is that the new bill will make us more secure by getting more immigrants on the books, thus allowing for more background checks. Yet the FBI did run a background check on Tamerlan Tsarnaev and failed to find the problem. Ultimately, a working system of patriotic assimilation is the only truly effective security system. If that system is broken, no amount of FBI reports will protect us.

Those who argue that it’s impossible to pick out a few bad actors years ahead of possible radicalization are closer to the mark, but they miss the importance of having a strong system of patriotic assimilation in place. That’s the real assurance we’ve done our best to prevent mistakes.

So we’ve been wrongly treating Boston as a security issue in the narrow sense. Instead, Boston should open up the immigration debate to the wider question of patriotic assimilation, which encompasses security and more, while also providing real solutions.

Those solutions depend on taking Fonte and Nagai’s advice and dismantling our multicultural and bilingual system of (non)assimilation in favor of a return to patriotic assimilation as Americans have traditionally understood that idea. I doubt the Democrats will buy into that, which is why I doubt I can support this new bill.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.