Immigration and National Identity in an Age of Terror

By Stanley A. Renshon

Georgetown Univ. 273 pp. $26.95

There's nothing more disappointing in a public-policy book than a good idea pushed too far: an author who raises probing and important questions and then, instead of exploring them thoughtfully, crushes the topic with a sledgehammer.

Psychoanalyst and political science professor Stanley A. Renshon couldn't be more on target when he asks in his introduction, "What exactly binds us together as a people?" How do we encourage a sense of "national community"? And, most pressing perhaps, what will it take to make Americans out of the millions of immigrants arriving on our shores today? Our future as a society -- and as a nation of immigrants -- depends not just on grappling with these difficult questions, but on getting the answers right.

Renshon has read widely and thought hard about the problem. As a psychiatrist, he also views it from an intriguing vantage point -- one that helps him go a step further than others who see the challenge in entirely "cognitive" or cerebral terms. And he's right that the nation needs to make sure all Americans, newcomer and native, feel not just theoretically but also emotionally attached with the kind of pride and loyalty that is traditionally -- no apologies necessary -- labeled "patriotism."

But here's where "The 50% American" veers off the tracks: Although Renshon seems to understand in theory that people live with layered loyalties -- that one can be, as he writes about himself, "a husband, professor, Jew, American" -- when confronted with a real case, he finds such multiple layers deeply threatening. Psychiatrist that he is, he seems strangely unsophisticated about how most people manage their psychic attachments -- how they rank and order and live quite comfortably, thank you, with an array of different identities.

The layering that bothers him most is dual citizenship, which he points out has exploded in recent decades. By his estimate, more than 80 percent of the immigrants who have entered the United States since 1961 have come from places that allow or encourage dual citizenship. Though the rules vary from country to country, this often means they can vote, hold office and serve in the militaries of two "homelands." "The chief concern about dual citizenship," Renshon writes, "is that it encourages or results in shallower attachments to the American national community." And to a degree, he's right to be concerned: In the abstract, this is a somewhat troubling prospect. Ultimately, if most dual citizens were equally and enduringly loyal to both nations, they would be true to neither and would have trouble fully belonging in either one.

But Renshon's nightmare vision of galloping civic bigamy is just that -- an exaggerated nightmare vision. Take Mexico, the country that bothers him most. True enough, Mexico now permits dual nationality: As of 1998, naturalized Mexican American immigrants and their U.S.-born children have been allowed to regain Mexican nationality. But in the first five years the law was on the books, only a fraction of the eligible population bothered to apply: 1.6 percent, to be precise. And those who have done so invariably explain it as more a matter of convenience than of dual loyalty: Dual nationality makes it easier, among other perks, to own and inherit Mexican real estate.

What's more, far from deterring naturalization in the United States, the new Mexican law has sharply spurred it. One of the reasons, it turns out, that many Mexican Americans did not in the past choose to become U.S. citizens was that they feared it would seem they were shunning their families or trying to obliterate their roots. But now that they don't have to shed one association to embrace the other, many are much more comfortable becoming U.S. citizens. Even when immigrants do embrace two identities, it tends to be a passing phase. First-generation Americans have always lived between two worlds, one foot in the old place and the other in the United States. And eventually they have always tilted in one direction or another, with some returning home and others putting down roots here. The story is no different today -- even with cheap international travel and the emphasis that multiculturalism puts on ethnic differences.

But how would Renshon know this? As far as one can tell from the evidence in his book, he has never spoken to a single person of the kind he's supposedly writing about: immigrants and their families. Sure, the left-wing professors and multiculti activists he quotes on page after page say silly, wrongheaded things -- railing against borders and denouncing America. But Renshon goes too far when he suggests that it is easy for those born in another country "to see the United States instrumentally," argues that the identities of people with dual nationality are "more likely to be conflicted than functional" and questions "whether, given the importance of their national attachments to many people, it is possible to put aside those older attachments and give primary weight to the new ones."

How dare he claim that immigrant adults cannot and do not learn new loyalties? Has he never felt the patriotism of a newly minted American citizen or counted the disproportionate number of Hispanic names on the lists of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan? Like much of the rest of the book, his solution makes sense in theory, but would go too far in practice. Recognizing that we are unlikely to outlaw dual citizenship -- largely because we can't control other countries that permit it -- Renshon suggests instead that we "regulate" it, in effect criminalizing the privileges that come with it: voting, running for office and serving in the military in other countries. In a perfect world, it would probably be better if people didn't do these things: Over a lifetime, such activities could dilute U.S. citizenship. But criminalizing them is only going to drive them underground and hardly seems an effective way to win new immigrants' love and loyalty.

Renshon is on far more solid ground when he suggests that we take positive steps to encourage immigrants to become Americans, giving them the tools to assimilate -- for example, providing English classes. He isn't wrong: In the long run, few people can handle two "primary" attachments -- just as few live forever straddling their parents' home and their marriage. But the best way to help someone make the transition is not to scold or nag. It's to make the new home so appealing that the strength of the new attachment eventually takes over. As a psychologist, Renshon ought to know this -- and as a patriotic American, he ought to have more faith in the seductive power of our way of life and our ideals.