Reagan appreciated that America is a nation of immigrants, but more than that, he understood that the great attraction of immigrants to America was not simply greater economic opportunity but the dream of freedom–the American dream–that the nation represents. The promise of America is not just a better material life but that you can become an American .
Becoming an American is much more than simply getting a legal document attesting to the bearer’s privileges of citizenship. Here’s how Reagan explained it in a 1988 speech:
“America represents something universal in the human spirit. I received a letter not long ago from a man who said, ‘You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France to live and not become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey, and you won’t become a German or a Turk.’ But then he added, ‘Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.’”
A person becomes an American by adopting America’s principles, especially those principles summarized in the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence, such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Carl Friedrich wrote that “To be an American is an ideal, while to be a Frenchman is a fact.”
As an immigrant friend once put it to me: “I was always an American; I was just born in the wrong country.”
I love that last bit.