All Commentary
Friday, January 1, 1988

Who Is an American?

Mr. Mayer is a surveyor living in Schuylerville, New York.

As Americans we are often un-American when it comes to illegal aliens.

The word illegal connotes something contrary to the law; yet what more clearly defines our law than those unalienable rights spelled out in the Declaration of independence or what better describes our land than its heritage as a haven for those wishing to better themselves? Can we logically describe as “alien” those who seek freedom, opportunity, and equality before the law?

America is a unique concept. It is a land whose people are defined not in terms of nationality but of outlook. It is what one believes that makes an American, not skin color, religion, or language.

An American is described by his beliefs, his adherence to certain clear principles not of religion but of religious freedom, not of status but of equality of treatment, not of privilege but of opportunity. By this measure there are many true Americans who do not reside here, and others who vegetate here but are not truly Americans.

There is concern that those who come to this land may take jobs from local residents, secure false social security cards, passports, and drivers’ licenses, or go on welfare. But are such regimentation and programs really the American heritage? And is beating someone out of a job by being more willing and competitive really un-American? Such objections come from those who have obtained privileged or protected positions through licensing, certification, seniority, or monopolization and who are not willing to compete in a free and open market.

Do I, because I was born here, have greater claim than one who has made the conscious choice to come to the United States? Do I through mere chance and by none of my own doing have a greater claim to being an American than he who has made the effort?

I think not. I only am an American by being an American, by making that choice daily in my life. And the refugee who makes that choice is also a true American, as much as I—a brother of the spirit, as Americanism is a matter of the spirit. He has the right to live, to provide for himself, and to care for his family, without certificate of occupancy or let from petty official or regulatory agency.

Through our churches and legislatures, we dole out billions of dollars in foreign aid—anything to keep the natives happy (and away from our shores). We charitably give to others, so long as they’ll stay where they “belong.” But we will not grant them the right to practice Americanism, claiming this as a privilege for those who got here first. This isn’t very American.