“Have You Been an Un-American?”: Personal Identification and Americanizing the Noncitizen Self-Concept
Volume 81, No. 2, Summer 2008
By Ian Long

In contemporary American politics and social discourse, the topic of illegal immigration has become incendiary. Broaching the topic in conversation is likely to ignite deep passions and incite visceral reactions among most parties involved. One’s reaction to the issue may have much to do with the face that one attributes to America’s current population of undocumented immigrants. In his latest book, State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America, conservative commentator and three-time Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan dedicates an entire chapter to establishing his characterization of undocumented immigrants. The examples that he uses to describe this population are telling:

MS-13, the largest and most violent gang in northern Virginia . . . .

. . . .

. . . has 8,000 to 10,000 members in thirty-three states. . . . Although some members were born in America . . . MS-13 is still “composed primarily of illegal immigrants from El Salvador.” . . . MS-13 roams from North Carolina to New England. . . . In Boston, six MS-13 members were charged with gang-raping two deaf girls, one of whom, a victim of cerebral palsy, was in a wheelchair.

This is not West Side Story.

It is the story of a policy of “open borders” and virtually unrestricted immigration . . . .

Contrast Mr. Buchanan’s narrative with that of Rodrigo Nunez:

Each morning is the same for Rodrigo Nunez. He wakes up, eats a banana and has a cup of coffee saturated with sugar and milk, and then throws on his ratty jeans and mud-caked boots, ready for yet another day of hard labor and monotony.

It will take him an hour and a half to ride the Metro bus from his Denver Harbor area apartment to get to where he needs to go, a ride that he often looks forward to because he is able to sleep on the trip to the construction site.

“The sun wakes me up on the bus right before I get there,” Nunez said. “Today we are digging a ditch to run the pipes through. It is hard because it is so hot during the day . . . .”

. . . .

Although Nunez concedes that his job is not easy work, and the pay is just above minimum wage, he is happy to have it. Nunez says that some of his friends in Mexico do not make enough money to feed their children. He does not want that to be him.

“I work very hard, but for me it is a lot of money,” Nunez said. “I miss my family, but I am happy with my life here.”

If he can, Nunez sends $200 to his remaining family in San Pablito, Puebla, Mexico, and saves the rest to support his wife and his eight-year-old daughter, Mariana. Although he would like to return to Mexico someday, when he has made enough money, Nunez knows his daughter will have a better education and a better future here.

“I hope that she will become a doctor someday,” Nunez said. “She is very intelligent, I can see that already.”

With such conflicting conceptions of who undocumented immigrants are and what role they play within American society, emotional and irrational responses from all sides of the debate are possible. In a time when stories of border fences and sanctuary cities have become fixtures in the daily news cycle, ideological polarization occurs all too naturally. However, when sculpting and implementing statutes, ordinances, or legal policies, it is vital that reason and rationality win the day.

One of the most hotly disputed questions surrounding illegal immigration is to what extent undocumented immigrants, specifically those who are already living in the United States, should be integrated into American society and, perhaps most importantly, to what extent those immigrants should have access to public benefits. Administrators, legislators, and other policy makers are forced to balance seemingly conflicting interests, including national security, fiscal responsibility, and human compassion. Often, these decisions directly affect undocumented immigrants’ ability to integrate within American society and access its most important institutions–including hospitals, universities, and public schools. An important ingredient in the immigrant-integration debate is the extent to which undocumented immigrants should have access to personal identification.

Within the past decade, personal identification (“ID”) has become both increasingly ubiquitous and increasingly restricted. As Americans, we are frequently required to present some form of ID in order to gain access to a variety of goods and services. Fear of terrorism has been a recent driving force behind the adoption of mandatory ID policies; however, the same fear has spawned initiatives that make obtaining personal identification more difficult. For undocumented immigrants, this perfect storm of ID regulations has left many marooned on an island of illegitimacy. Incapable of meeting the strict application requirements, undocumented immigrants often do not possess any form of personal identification, and are subsequently unable to gain access to those goods and services for which identification has become a prerequisite.

This Comment discusses the ID conundrum facing undocumented immigrants in America and examines the extent to which access to personal identification is related to immigrant integration. By leveraging the central concepts of identity and social identity theory, this Comment posits that providing undocumented immigrants with personal identification, and thereby allowing them to more fully access various facets of American society, will increase the extent to which undocumented immigrants view themselves as part of the American societal collective. By adopting American norms and ideals within their individual self-concepts, undocumented immigrants will become cooperative members of society who seek to advance its common goals, rather than resentful outsiders who, relegated to the shadows of American’s citizenry, become uncooperative, or, at worst, directly hostile towards the rest of society.

Part II.A discusses the prevalence of ID requirements in American society, and the obstacles undocumented immigrants face due to their lack of such identification. Part II.B highlights the four major routes by which undocumented immigrants have thus far attempted to gain access to personal identification (driver’s licenses, local identification cards, the Matrícula Consular, and fraudulent documentation) and the seemingly conflicting goals of broadening access to ID while simultaneously guarding against terrorism and identity fraud. To provide the reader with some context within which to consider how this Comment contributes to the ongoing debate, Part III offers a cross-section of other scholarly articles addressing noncitizen identification. Part IV introduces the concepts of identity and social identity theory, and those concepts are then applied to the discussion of noncitizen identification in Part V. The discussion of identity and social identity theory builds a foundation for this Comment’s overarching proposition: providing undocumented immigrants with access to personal identification will help ingrain an Americanized self-concept, which will benefit not only the current community of undocumented immigrants, but American society as a whole.

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