MEXICO HAS BEEN losing ground to the United States for 150 years, but no longer. Mexico has come up with a plan -- if not to regain the 1 million square miles of land it lost in the Mexican American War, at least to recapture some of its former citizens and their American-born children. Under a new Mexican law that went into effect last month, naturalized U.S. citizens who were born in Mexico can now apply to retain Mexican nationality.
As many as 7 million naturalized Americans could take advantage of the new law, and so could their U.S.-born children, perhaps doubling the number eligible to hold dual U.S. and Mexican nationality. Never before has the United States had to face a problem of dual loyalties among its citizens of such great magnitude and proximity. Although some other countries -- such as Israel, Colombia and the Dominican Republic also allow dual nationality -- no other nation sends as many immigrants to the United States nor shares a common border. For the first time, millions of U.S. citizens could declare their allegiance to a neighboring country.
But don't naturalized citizens have to forswear allegiance to all other countries when they take the oath of citizenship? Well, sort of. Although all new citizens renounce any allegiance to other governments, princes or potentates, the INS doesn't enforce the oath. What's more, the Supreme Court has narrowly proscribed the circumstances under which a naturalized or U.S.-born citizen may lose his citizenship even if he violates the letter or spirit of the oath.
For example, voting in a foreign election or serving in a foreign military used to be enough to jeopardize Americans citizenship, but no longer. Now, any U.S. citizen can serve in another country's military, so long as he is not a commissioned or non-commissioned officer and the country is not involved in hostilities with the United States. And U.S. citizens may vote in other countries' elections as well, but may not serve in important posts in foreign governments requiring an oath of allegiance to the other nation.
All of these changes, no doubt, erode loyalty to the United States but, until now, have involved relatively few people. What is significant about the change in Mexican law is its potential to affect so many newcomers at a time when other pressures also diminish attachment to the immigrants' adopted nation.
Unlike previous immigrant groups, Mexicans travel only a short distance to come to the United States, often settling within a few hundred miles of the border itself in California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Not only can they travel easily back and forth, keeping ties to their homeland stronger, but many live in large immigrant enclaves in the United States, where Spanish is heard more frequently than English, Mexican soccer and baseball teams followed more closely than American teams, and more than $4 billion a year is sent home to relatives.
Assimilation -- once the norm, which turned millions of Germans, Greeks, Irish, Italians, Poles and Russians into Americans -- is now so reviled few people dare to embrace it.
Already, many American public schools have abandoned their responsibility to teach Mexican immigrant children English, preferring instead to teach them in Spanish, often for years. Cinco de Mayo, an obscure Mexican holiday celebrating Mexican troops defeat of the French at Puebla in 1862, is more widely celebrated here than in Mexico, as many Americans of Mexican descent desperately search for symbols of their ancestral identity.
But these changes in Mexican law will simply exacerbate confusion about cultural identity. The United States remains the most generous country in the world in its immigration policies, but immigration has, until recently, involved a sacred covenant: We welcome everyone, but we expect those who decide to become U.S. citizens to do so because they want to become Americans.
In 1990, the commissioner of immigration and naturalization wrote in an essay for new citizens: "Today, you have become a citizen of the United States of America. You are no longer an Englishman, a Frenchman, an Italian, a Pole. Neither are you a hyphenated-American." It's unlikely these same words could be spoken today.
It's difficult to know who will lose most by this enormous shift in both attitude and policy -- new immigrants who miss out on truly becoming Americans, or the rest of us who are too timid to insist that citizenship require undiluted
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