Which Flag to Fly on the Fourth?

by Richard Estrada

I don't know if it happened this Fourth of July, but in recent years, it's happened more than once in Brownsville. Spurred by patriotism, American Veterans plant small falgs on the lawns of homes in the country club area of the Gulf Coast border town of 100,000. But then some noncitizen residents emerge from their dwellings and angrily pull Old Glory out, also because of patriotism--to Mexico.

In truth, Mexican Americans have proven themselves to be among the most patriotic U.S. ethnic groups, having produced, for example, a disproportionate number of highly decorated war veterans. Yet, ever-increasing attempts to blur the distinction between citizens of Mexican descent and Mexican residents who are not citizens is dangerous to everyone. A failure to make the distinction threatens to drive a wedge between Mexican Americans and all other Americans.

Indeed, the Brownsville story is only one of many that underscore the erosion of respect for American nationhood. In Dallas, I have seen scores of Mexican-origin students at school assembly stand and sing the national anthem--of Mexico.

In El Paso, I've heard Mexican American businessmen complain about Border Patrol crackdowns against document fraud at legal border crossings. It seems the inconvenience to their friends in the Mexican business community is too great.

In Houston, I've heard advocates for mass immigration praise, as "global residents," people who live and work here, but who don't intend to become citizens.

These examples have something in common. They exalt ethnicity and commerce over citizenship and nationhood. If only for this, they represent a step back toward tribalism and greed. As a corollary, they show disrespect for the concepts of democracy and national sovereignity. To put it another way, they exalt the special interests over the national interests.

It's not that the majority of today's newcomers actually come to do harm, whether they wish to resettle permanently, work temporarily, visit a relative, or see the Grand Canyon. But the nation badly needs to exert a degree of scrutiny over the numerical levels and incorporation of newcomers. Instead, the latest news is that the Immigration and Naturalization Service has failed to maintain the integrity of citizenship classes. About 1 million resident aliens are projected to be naturalized this year alone. Naturalization is desirable, but only if preospective citizens follow the rules and learn what the country stands for.

What is occurring in the United States with regard to the debasement of citizenship and nationhood may yield a bitter fruit. When large crowds of Mexcian Americans in Los Angeles wave the Mexican flag in protest of a California initiative to ban public benefits to illegal aliens, the act is not just a violation of basic respect and protocol. It is also an assault on the democratic process in the U.S.

Now that Mexico's Congress has moved closer to guaranteeing dual nationality to native-born Mexicans abroad, the situation is entering a dramatic new phase. This will be especially true if an estimated 500,000 to 5 million dual nationals begin voting in Mexican elections while on U.S. soil, even as they participate, on one degree or another, in the U.S. political process. More than ever, the question of divided loyalties will arise, to the detriment of Mexican Americans.

Mexico, of course, is not particularly concerned about the possible fractualization of the United States. The country's political and social hierarchy is far more concerned about ridding itself of a labor surplus so large that it is an ever-present threat to Mexican stability. Remittances from Mexican workers in the United States of more than $3 billion annually are also a consideration, as are the workers' access to some public benefits here.

The challenges of managing the binational relationship are enormous. Cooperation is often essential. But when it comes to maintaing the world's greatest multiethnic nation, and delineating what citizenship entails, the U.S. government should proceed cautiously for a very good reason: if everyone who walks the fruited plain is a citizen, then no one is a citizen.

Try governing a country on that basis. For that matter, try getting people to agree on something so basic as which flag to fly.

The late Richard Estrada was an editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News and was a member of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. Reprinted by permission of the Dallas Morning News, 1997.

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