as published in the L.A. Times on September 1, 1997
I want to be an American. In fact, I recently filed my application for naturalization. I am not just seeking U.S. citizenship; I want to become an American.
Why would I "renounce and abjure all allegiance" (as the oathe of allegiance to the United States requires) to my country or origin, thus creating a permanent division between myself and my family, friends and the land of my birth, to become an American? Why not just get the best of both worlds and continue as a legal resident; while maintaining a foreign citizenship in case I decide to go back? After all, most rights afforded by the American system are enjoyed by foreign residents (legal and in some cases illegal). Or why not become an American but remain a Bolivian - a Hispanic American - so I can keep my "identity?"
The reason why is that America deserves better from its immigrants. And, making that commitment is good for immigrants themselves. If we are going to live here and benefit from all that America has to offer, then let us make this our home. Let us unpack, not just our luggage, but also our minds. Let us seek not just rights but also responsibilities. Ultimately, like those who came before us, let us pledge "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor" for the betterment of the United States of America.
The continued viability of the United States may largely depend on the attitudes and choices of its millions of unassimilated immigrants and other ethnic groups (residents and citizens alike). Many of us are eager to assimilate and become fully integrated into the larger society. Some may be undecided, others confused and still others opposed to it.
But if we are to finally assimilate, we will also need all the encouragement we can get from other Americans. Unless welcomed and accepted, we will continue to live as aliens, even after becoming citizens. A reciprocal process is needed, where immigrants mingle freely with the rest of society, and where Americans actively welcome them.
This process can be illustrated by what could be called the "delta effect." The Mississippi River is fed by many tributaries, runs its course and at its delta joins the Gulf of Mexico. The gulf welcomes the river's fresh - different - waters, and is enriched by them, but its essence as saltwater remains unchanged.
The river illustrates the flow of immigrants, and the open waters, America. The United States being a nation of immigrants can and does benefit from a constant flow (under certain parameters) of immigrants. Ultimately, it is the pressure of the continually arriving waters that facilitates the mingling at the pont of contact between salt and fresh water.
This revitalizing process, however, should take place under certain conditions. Most important, we immigrants need to "arrive." The word "arrive" literally means "to come to the shore." That is what assimilation is all about. Once we are here, no more double-mindedness, no more dual national allegiance.
If we immigrants do not arrive, then we may become rivals. To be a rival - that is, to form conflicting streams striving for supremacy - is certainly not the solution to America's problems.
America should be the treasured possession of all Americans, unified by what Peter D. Salins, author of "Assimilation, American Style," identifies as three fundamental components of Americanness: the American idea (democracy, freedom and justice for all), the Protestant ethic (hard work and self-reliance) and English as the national language. My decision to seek American citizenship is the result of careful and lengthy deliberation. I cannot change the color of my skin and I need not change my name. But I can and in fact have made up my mind. I want to be an American.
Pedro C. Moreno is international coordinator of the Rutherford Institute, a religious civil liberties organization based in Virginia. He immigrated to the United States from Bolivia three years ago.