Citizenship, Civic Virtue, and Immigrant Integration: The Enduring Power of Community-Based Norms

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Yale Law & Policy Review


This article, the result of two summers of ethnographic research in Lewiston and Auburn, Maine, attempts both to evaluate the merits and explore the consequences of different approaches to immigrant integration. It examines the impact that national citizenship norms and state and local integration policies have had on the Somalis’ experience in Lewiston while also exploring internal obstacles to the Somalis’ incorporation. Part II briefly reviews competing theoretical perspectives on citizenship, membership, and belonging. This Part explores the historic tension between a more liberal or pluralist view of citizenship, where loyalty to the 'American Creed' is viewed as compatible with religious and cultural differences, and a more nationalist, Anglo-centric, 'core culture' model, rooted in Christianity and the English common law that tends to characterize immigrants who do not share our national and cultural values as a potentially destabilizing force. Under yet a third model, multicultural accommodation, which has gained acceptance in Canada and is increasingly gaining adherents in the United States, ethnic groups living in cultural enclaves enjoy a certain degree of autonomy over their community’s internal affairs. Throughout this Article, I explore whether multicultural accommodation can co-exist with liberal and core culture approaches to immigrant integration.

Part III examines how these different theories of membership and belonging are reflected in the naturalization case law on good moral character. Through most of the twentieth century, and notwithstanding the U.S. Constitution’s grant of power to Congress to establish a uniform rule for naturalization, the U.S. Immigration Service and many district court judges applied a community-based standard in assessing whether applicants met the good moral character requirement for U.S. citizenship. Much of the case law involved naturalization applicants accused of violating state mores legislation, including laws against adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bigamy, abandonment, and incest. In 1981, however, a Fourth Circuit decision led to an important shift in the law.. The court found that reliance on state sodomy laws as a basis for denying naturalization would defeat the Constitution’s uniformity requirement and adopted a federal standard for evaluating good moral character based on whether the conduct in question was 'harmful to the public.' In 1990, Congress transferred authority to decide naturalization petitions from the federal district courts to the INS. Yet, prior to this, a rich body of case law emerged that explicitly draws on ecclesiastic, common law, and philosophical sources, as well as the community’s moral values of the time. These earlier cases are more than just a reflection of a bygone era; they implicate the broader debate over whether state mores regulation is still appropriate and raise the question whether an applicant’s eligibility for naturalization should turn on the values of the particular community where he or she resides.

Through a close study of the Somalis’ experience in Lewiston, Part IV of this Article explores the impact of external and intragroup barriers on the process of incorporating an immigrant or refugee group into the social fabric of a community. It first investigates the factors that led a large segment of the Somali refugee community that the U.S. government had resettled in major urban cities across America to choose to relocate to Lewiston, Maine. It then examines the initial reception of the Somali refugees by the people of Lewiston and the circumstances that led to a series of crises within the town. This section then analyzes continuing barriers to the Somalis’ incorporation. It first addresses external barriers at the federal, state, and local levels before addressing intragroup barriers, including isolationist tendencies within the Somali community, ongoing rivalries among the major clans and subclans, subordination of women, and discrimination against minority and low-caste clans. The Article concludes in Part V by examining the barriers to citizenship and immigrant integration that are created by the interplay among national citizenship norms, state, and local integration policies, and the norms and dynamics internal to immigrant communities themselves.

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Publication Date

Spring 2009