Richard V. Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where Amy Hu is a research intern.
G iven the anti-immigrant rhetoric dominating public dialogue, you might be forgiven for not knowing that the majority of immigrants to the United States are here legally , or that about 1 in 7 U.S. residents are immigrants — a percentage three times as high as in 1970. As things stand, 1 in 5 adults see immigration as “the most important problem facing the nation.”
It is not clear why, in itself, more immigration should be seen as a problem. For all the hysteria over MS-13, immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans. A quarter of new businesses are started by immigrants, and immigrant children grasp educational opportunities firmly. Among children born in Los Angeles to poorly educated Chinese immigrants, for example, 70 percent complete a four-year college degree. And while fewer Americans are moving around the country, immigrants are on the move, relocating from traditional immigrant cities — New York, Los Angeles — to other towns and cities in search of a better future.
Entrepreneurial, mobile, aspirational: New Americans are arguably true Americans. (Now is perhaps a good time for the authors of this article to confess — no, not confess, to boast loudly — that we are immigrants ourselves.)
The immigration problem is one of perception rather than reality. It represents a failure not of our system but of our imagination. Trump supporters who back the president’s push for a border wall are most likely to live in areas with limited racial diversity, including fewer Hispanic neighbors, according to a large study co-written by Gallup senior economist Jonathan Rothwell. As Rothwell says: “Limited interactions with racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and college graduates may contribute to prejudicial stereotypes, political and cultural misunderstandings, and a general fear of rejection and not-belonging.”
Absent personal interaction with many immigrants, many white Americans are susceptible to anti-immigrant rhetoric. Anxious about their own prospects and looking for people to blame for their plight, immigrants have been presented, by President Trump and his allies, as easy targets.
The immigration problem is one of fear rather than fact. So what can be done to address it? As Rothwell shows, more integrated areas seem to generate more positive views of immigration. Greater understanding is created, in a phrase borrowed from the late philosopher Gerald Cohen, “in the thick of daily life.” But we can hardly integrate every neighborhood, even if immigrants themselves were willing to move.
Here is a modest proposal to try to improve understanding of and empathy for immigrants: Require that every American student attends a citizenship ceremony before graduating from high school. These ceremonies are deeply, colorfully and unapologetically patriotic. Most participants and observers cannot help but be moved by the sight of people from around the world — despite an increasingly long and arduous application process to become a citizen — pledging their allegiance to the flag, singing the national anthem and, often tearfully, receiving their naturalization certificate.
Federal courts encourage not only the attendance but also the active participation of school classes, for instance by serving as the color guard, presenting new citizens with flags or leading the Pledge of Allegiance. However, we should go beyond encouragement. Students learn about the history of the United States as an immigrant nation. It would be useful for them to see that it remains one. States, counties and school districts should, therefore, add attendance at a citizenship ceremony to the requirements for high school graduation. Those citizens who are immigrants themselves would, of course, have already met the requirement.
There are some practical considerations. Each year, 7,200 naturalization ceremonies, each welcoming an average of 100 new citizens to our nation, take place, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Given current student enrollment, this would mean an average of about 500 students attending each ceremony, in addition to the family members and friends who often attend. Many ceremonies would need to be moved to larger venues, as some already have, perhaps to the auditorium of the high school itself, or to a local theater or other civic space. They could become community events, rather than just family ones.
In preparation for attending a ceremony, high school classes could be invited to take the citizenship test that must be passed before naturalization. The overwhelming majority of applicants for citizenship pass the test. But just 60 percent of native-born Americans do, according to some surveys. (To be fair, the questions are drawn from a fixed list that is known in advance, so a little study would get most people through.)
There is much that needs to be fixed about our immigration system. But the biggest fix we need is in the way many Americans view immigrants themselves. A first step would be to ensure that young Americans witness the magical moment of becoming a citizen.