The American Legion Magazine | 6.1.08
By Alan W. Dowd

With some 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country and thousands more streaming in every month, we all know America has a serious illegal immigration problem. What’s overlooked or forgotten amid the tidal wave is America’s legal immigration problem.

Our naturalization system is having trouble keeping up with the demands of an economy hungry for labor, and it’s not living up to the tried-and-true methods that once transformed the “huddled masses” into American citizens.


The U.S. absorbs about 1.8 million immigrants each and every year, including legal and illegal immigrants. In 2006, the U.S. naturalized 702,589 immigrants. All told, America’s foreign-born population stands at 32 million.[1]

To some, these numbers are scary. To others, they are inspiring. It all depends on your perspective on immigration. Is it the wellspring of our country, an indication of our dynamism and attractiveness and greatness? Or is it a threat to our culture and traditions—and greatness? Or is it, somehow, both?

Speaking of perspective, it may help to put these numbers in perspective:

  • In 1900, America’s foreign-born population was 10.3 million people, amounting to 13.5 percent of the overall population.
  • In 1930, the foreign-born population was 14.2 million, amounting to 11.5 percent of the population.
  • In 1960, it was 9.7 million, or just 5.3 percent of the population.
  • In 1990, it was 19.7 million, or 7.9 percent of the population.
  • At 32 million, today’s foreign-born population is 10.5 percent of the overall population.[2]

In other words, today’s immigration numbers may be high but the percentage of immigrants falls comfortably in the middle range of the last hundred years or so. In fact, it’s well below our 1890 peak, when the foreign-born comprised 15 percent of the population.

Moreover, it pays to recall that American culture remains a powerful force. For example, Stephen Haber of the Hoover Institution has noted that “80 percent of third-generation Mexican-Americans cannot speak Spanish.”

Divided States?
What is worrisome is the fact that only 40 percent of the foreign-born population is naturalized—down from 50 percent in 1980, which was down from 63 percent in 1970, which was down from 78 percent in 1950.[3]

As Alan Brinkley writes in The Unfinished Nation, immigrant arrivals since the 1960s have been “less willing to accept the standards of the larger society and more likely to demand recognition of their own ethnic identity” than earlier immigrant cohorts.[4]

John Fonte, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for American Common Culture, argues that America has itself partly to blame for this trend. “For decades we have implemented what truly could be called anti-Americanization, anti-assimilation and anti-integration policies,” he explains. He worries that “mass immigration with little assimilation” could lead to the “Quebecization of the United States”—one country with two nations.[5]

Before scoffing at that prospect, it pays to recall that some school districts in Washington, Oregon, California and Texas are actually using the Mexican public school curriculum.[6]

In other words, we have come a long way since the days when Theodore Roosevelt viewed public schools as an important tool of assimilation. Thanks to “the public school system and the all-pervading energy of American life,” TR said of German immigrants, “the children of the first generation were half, and the grandchildren in most cases wholly, Americanized—to their own inestimable advantage.”[7]

“We have to dismantle the anti-assimilation regime,” Fonte argues, pointing to bilingual public education, bilingual ballots, dual allegiance and dual citizenship, which allows naturalized Americans to run for office in other countries. “A good start would be to simply enforce the Oath of Allegiance.”[8] (See the sidebar.)

This could help reverse the slide toward what TR once called “hyphenated Americanism.” “When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad,” he observed. But he made it clear that “our allegiance must be purely to the United States. We must unsparingly condemn any man who holds any other allegiance. But if he is heartily and singly loyal to this Republic, then no matter where he was born, he is just as good an American as any one else.”

Testing Times

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) administers the Oath of Allegiance, and as the lead agency in the naturalization process, USCIS does much more. It investigates fraud, verifies residency, carries out background checks, and determines whether applicants meet a range of eligibility requirements, such as: moral character, an ability to speak and read English, and a grasp of U.S. civics and history.

The naturalization process requires applicants to complete an eligibility worksheet and an application form, present two specific kinds of photographs, present a number of corroborating documents, submit to fingerprinting, go to a USCIS office for the scheduled interview, pay a $675 filing and processing fee, be a legal resident for five years (in most cases), and take a test of English and U.S. civics. Some of the sample civics questions are simple:

  • What are the colors of our flag?
  • What color are the stripes on the flag?
  • What are the two major political parties in the United States today?

But some would stump more than a few native-born Americans:

  • What were the 13 original states?
  • Who elects the president of the United States?
  • How many amendments are there to the Constitution?

Once applicants have passed the test (which is being redesigned to ensure a more meaningful naturalization process), they swear an Oath of Allegiance to the United States, binding them to America, requiring them to renounce all other allegiances and officially making them U.S citizens.

Byzantine Backlog

The process should be rigorous, and it should be true to the intent of its own objectives. But it shouldn’t be snarled in bureaucracy. As one federal judge put it, immigrants and the people charged with helping them assimilate have to navigate “a Byzantine organizational structure” that is further complicated by “antique computer systems.”[9]

A Wall Street Journal analysis found that immigrants seeking work visas, sometimes a first step for Americans-in-the-making, must pass screenings by the Labor Department, USCIS, State Department and in many cases the FBI.[10]

Even Homeland Security Secretary Michael Cherthoff has conceded that he is “sympathetic” to concerns that “the naturalization process can be burdensome and confusing.”[11]

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports that no less than five federal agencies handle aspects of immigration—the Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, Labor, State and Homeland Security—with responsibility further divided among a number of bureaus, offices and sub-agencies:

  • Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman,
  • Executive Office of Immigration Review,
  • Customs and Border Protection,
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and
  • USCIS.[12]

The result is a serious backlog. In the latter half of 2007, for instance, some 320,000 candidates for naturalization were languishing in the FBI name-check process. As a Los Angeles Times story concluded, almost 50 percent had been waiting six months, and nearly 20 percent had been waiting more than two years. The backlog, which was largely caused by post-9/11 security measures, spawned 4,100 lawsuits in 2007 alone.[13]

These are the sorts of problems that prompted presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, to wryly observe, “If necessary, we ought to outsource this whole issue to FedEx and UPS. They seem to have a better way of keeping up with packages than our government does with people.”[14]

To their credit, officials at the Department of Homeland Security and USCIS are working hard to improve the process and chip away at the backlogs.

  • In 2006, USCIS received an extra $114 million to reduce the backlog and modernize its systems.[15]
  • USCIS has launched an online application system to replace a slow and antiquated paper-driven system. The system creates an electronic database and an archived record of all transactions between the applicant and USCIS, cutting down on delays and leaving less room form error.[16]
  • As part of nationwide pilot program, USCIS is renovating or replacing 36 offices to promote efficiency, offer one-stop immigration services, enhance security and build what USCIS director Emilio Gonzalez calls “a positive first impression with future Americans.”[17]
  • USCIS has invested revenues from increased fees in upgraded systems and expanded staff.

Thanks to increased flexibility, staffing improvements and a more business-oriented approach, Gonzalez recently reported “dramatic progress in backlog elimination.” Specifically, by the beginning of 2007, USCIS had addressed 70 percent of the previously backlogged cases and discovered that a large percentage of the remaining cases were backlogged for reasons beyond the control of USCIS.[18]

Puzzle Pieces

Of course, there are many other pieces to this puzzle. Yet all of the pieces are connected.

First, there is border security. The U.S. government has the right, like any nation, to prevent illegal inbound migration, to determine who enters this country and how they enter. It only stands to reason that the easier it is to come across the border illegally, the less likely it is that immigrants will choose legal avenues of immigration. By the same token, the slower and harder it is to go through the naturalization process, the more likely it is that immigrants will choose a different path. Hence, the border fence, parts of which were actually constructed during the Clinton administration, is an important piece of the legal immigration puzzle. It should complement improvements to the naturalization system and enhancements to the assimilation process.

Second, there is neighborliness. The Mexican government has a responsibility to prevent illegal outbound migration. Just as Washington should devise polices that treat all immigrants with respect, Mexico City should not aid and abet those who break America’s laws.[19]

That brings us to a third puzzle piece, the supply problem. Even if America’s immigration system is imperfect, even if it’s slow, even if it’s outdated, it doesn’t give immigrants license to enter the country illegally. No matter how wide her arms, Lady Liberty can’t ignore the fact that tens of thousands come here illegally, the vast majority of them from Mexico. And that means that no matter how hard-working and productive they are, no matter how sincere their desire to live the American dream, their first act in this country—indeed, the very method they choose to enter this country—is a violation of U.S. law. In short, immigrants should respect the system. Those who don’t should be returned to their country of origin or required to pay some penalty.

Fourth, there is the demand problem. U.S. employers also have a responsibility to obey the law, and the U.S. government has a responsibility to enforce it. Immigrants couldn’t work here illegally if employers didn’t hire them illegally. So, instead of simply fining guilty employers, ICE is now arresting and prosecuting them. Arrest numbers have gone up each year since 2005. As an ICE spokesman told the Christian Science Monitor, “The magnet [for illegals] is getting a job. If you can make that a little more risky both for the employer and the person who takes the job, then hopefully it stems the flow somewhat.”[20]

John Clark of the Sagamore Institute adds, “The necessary flip side of the government tightening up on employers of illegals is for the government to establish an easy and tamper-proof method of verifying a job applicant’s legal status. Otherwise, to avoid making a mistake that might send them to jail, employers will avoid hiring anyone who seems ‘foreign’ since they might be using false papers.”

Vital Signs

Immigrants offer us a glimpse of our past and our future. So, even as we try to make sense of the intertwined immigration and naturalization systems, we should not lose sight of the reality that immigration into America is a sign of strength, vitality and growth.

After all, history reminds us that it’s far better to have people trying to get into your country than dying to get out.

Sidebar: America’s Waiting Room
By Alan W. Dowd

From 1892-1954, some 12 million people entered America through the gateway of Ellis Island, the nation’s first federal immigration station. In his history of Ellis Island, Keepers of the Gate, Thomas Pitkin writes that between 1901 and 1914, 75 percent of all immigrants came through Ellis Island.

During their stay, immigrants underwent medical inspection and legal processing. Ellis was designed to process as many as 5,000 immigrants per day, although it received more than 11,000 on April 17, 1907. Indeed, in the years leading up to World War I, inadequate facilities and corruption began to tarnish “the golden door” about which Emma Lazarus had written. As Pitkin observes, the facility was even called an “island of tears.”

But when the reform-minded Frederic Howe became commissioner of Ellis Island, he set out to transform the facility into “a comfortable waiting room” for newcomers to America. According to Pitkin, Howe “wanted to have immigrants well started on their way to becoming good American citizens before they left the island.” Toward that end, Howe modernized the facility, set up partnerships with local school boards to teach English to arriving immigrants, provided what one magazine called “a beginner’s class in American citizenship” and endeavored to “Americanize the immigrant.”

In Howe’s day, that was considered the progressive position. And it largely worked. So why did Washington close this gateway to America? According to the National Park Service, two factors conspired to make Ellis obsolete. First, quota-based immigration laws limited the number, and predetermined the nationality, of immigrants. This had a deterrent effect on immigration from Europe. Second, after World War I, the United States began opening consulates and embassies around the world, which shifted the application and review process overseas. 

Ellis Island’s lifecycle was a function of demand. It came into existence because of the demand created by European migration into the U.S., which almost always culminated at the ports of New York. And it became superfluous as the sources of U.S.-bound migration expanded beyond Europe. 

Today, with the bulk of immigrants emanating from Mexico and entering along the U.S. southern border, perhaps it makes sense to revive the Ellis Island approach to immigration.

Could we replicate the best of Ellis Island by creating processing centers at high-volume entry points in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and southern California? Could we convert abandoned military bases, shuttered by the BRAC process, into latter-day EllisIslands, where immigrants would be evaluated, housed, connected with employers, instructed in English and U.S. civics, and set on a path toward full citizenship? And if Ellis Island, at just 27 acres, could process up to 5,000 immigrants a day, couldn’t a network of modern processing centers handle the 1,400 or so who enter America illegally on a typical day in 2008?

To be sure, these “waiting rooms” would be expensive. But by promoting legal immigration and encouraging assimilation from the very beginning, they would be an investment in our future.

[1] See JOHN SIMANSKI, “Naturalizations in the United States: 2006,” Department of Homeland Security Annual Flow Report, May 2007; see also Migration Policy Institute, “Annual Immigration to the United States: The Real Numbers,” May 2007.

[2] Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung, “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850-2000,” US Census Bureau; see also US Census Bureau, “US Population from 1900.”

[3] See Gibson and Jung.

[4] Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation, 1993

[5] Fonte, personal interview, September 18, 2007; testimony before the House Judiciary Committee’s Immigration Subcommittee, May 16, 2007.

[6] AP, “Mexican curriculum in Oregon schools stirs debate,” September 20, 2007.

[7] Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, p.442

[8] Fonte, personal interview, September 18, 2007; testimony before the House Judiciary Committee’s Immigration Subcommittee, May 16, 2007.

[9] UPI, “Court order on naturalization backlog,” December 28, 2005.

[10] June Kronholz, “Under a Cloud,” Wall Street5 Journal, June 27, 2006.

[11] See Chertoff letter to Sen. Babara Mikulski, December 14, 2005.

[12] Ruth Ellen Wasem, “Toward More Effective Immigration Polices: Selected Organizational Issues,” CRS, January 25, 2007.

[13] Anna Gorman, “Bureaucratic backlog creates nightmare for immigrants,” LA Times, September 16, 2007.

[14] Republican Debate, September  5, 2007.

[15] Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, “Becoming an American likely to get more expensive soon,” Fox News, February 27, 2007.

[16] USCIS, USCIS Today, January 2006.

[17] USCIS press release, March 16, 2007.

[18] USCIS, “Backlog elimination plan,” December 11, 2006.

[19] For evidence of the Mexican government’s complicity, see BBC, “Mexican migrants to get US maps,” January 25, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4645782.stm

[20] Patrik Jonsson, “US authorities hold tougher line on hiring illegal immigrants,” Christian Science Monitor, March 20, 2007