What does it mean to be an American when over one quarter of our population comprise immigrants and their U.S-born children? Is it still American to follow the Statue of Liberty’s call to provide shelter and comfort to “the homeless and tempest-tossed” in a world with record numbers of over 50 million displaced peoples? In the immigration debate, some focus on the economic impact, national security concerns, cultural unity and integrity, or humanitarian/theological arguments. My concern in this post is with the American identity and its relationship to the ethnic identities of US immigrants. Do we need to defend “American identity” against change and encroachment? Is our identity already sullied and in need of restoration to some purer past?
In contrast to such nativist positions, I argue that the American identity does not have a singular historical source, but has emerged as a complex convergence of many characteristics, with two-way flows between “American” and “ethnic” identities. In this convergence view, immigrants are not simply Americanized. Instead they help produce an ever evolving set of identifies from existing parts of current American culture, some positive, some negative, that together are rightfully called “American”.
For those who bemoan the current modern resurgence of nativist views, a look back at US immigration history shows that this is unfortunately not a unique occurrence. Examples of racist protectionist policies from our past include: 1) The self-explanatory Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, passed just four years before the Statue of Liberty become our most famous immigrant. 2) Country quotas passed in 1924 to limit immigration from “undesirables” such as the Jews and Italians. 3) The deportation of Mexican-Americans in the early 1930s when the Great Depression meant their labor was no longer needed. 4) Various English-only ordinances in more modern times including a 1980 Dade Country, Florida anti-bilingual ordinance that was later repealed.
Further examination of American immigration history quickly dispels the myths behind the nativist position. First, there is no “pure American” past to draw on. The closest may be Protestants from the British Isles, but this ignores the ethnic and national variety of early colonists, not to mention the Native Americans and African slaves that are conveniently left out of traditional conceptions of the “pure American.”
Second, the concept of “American” has shifted over time as previously excluded groups are now accepted as Americans. For example, the great wave of immigration in the 19th and early 20th century brought Jews and Italians, and various Eastern and Southern Europeans who at the time were considered distinct races, but through boundary shifting are now considered “white Americans.”
If there is no pure American past to reclaim, and the boundaries of what is considered American have changed, our original question of “what does it mean to be American in an age of mass migration”, becomes even more perplexing.
The convergence view rejects traditional views of immigrant assimilation that view it as a one-way process of change in which the minority culture disappears and immigrants are mainstreamed into white, middle-class America. Instead, the “new assimilation” view recognizes the socially constructed nature of race and ethnicity that changes over time as well as variations within mainstream American culture that make identifying a core culture impossible. Further, the new assimilation view recognizes that both immigrant and host cultures interact as boundaries between what is considered “American” and “ethnic” blur or shift.
This view has significant implications for our identity as Americans and the role of immigration in group identity formation. First, language is often used as a metric to gauge how quickly an immigrant or immigrant community is Americanizing. Nativists fear that without adequate pressure, growing numbers of immigrants will continue to use their native languages and somehow dilute the unity and strength of America. Calls for English-only laws do not recognize the significant socio-economic barriers immigrants experience due to their lack of English-language skills, barriers that immigrants are well aware of. The reality is that most first generation adult immigrants will struggle to learn a new language and never achieve proficiency. However, research indicates that their children achieve very high levels of English language proficiency, and that by the third-generation the vast majority are in English-only households. We must continue to encourage English-language instruction, but rather than foment unfounded fears of a bi-lingual or multi-lingual country, we should actually provide select information and services in immigrant-languages to enable adult immigrants to achieve higher socio-economic status, accelerating their economic contributions and participation in civic life.
Second, the convergence view does not fear the presence of strong ethnic communities and immigrant culture within America, and in fact encourages it. Researchers have shown immigrant social mobility can actually be sped up in the presence of strong co-ethnic communities, by providing connections to jobs, housing and various services, as well as general support and encouragement in the face of prejudice and discrimination. Given that immigrants are generally more religious than native-born Americans, their co-ethnic communities are often centered around faith-communities. By continuing to celebrate their ethnicity within a familiar religious context, recent immigrants can not only more quickly heal from the shock of being transplanted, but experience increase civic engagement within the institutional cover of their church or faith-community.
Finally, while nativists often lambast critical views of America as “unpatriotic”, honest assessments of American culture will quickly identify negative elements that immigrants, particularly immigrant parents, view as something to protect their children from. For example, researchers have identified “selective acculturation” behaviors whereby immigrant parents seek to balance expanded opportunities for their children in education and the labor market with what they consider negative aspects of American culture such as disrespect for authority and intense sexualization. A study of immigrant youth in Miami revealed that as immigrants are “socialized” to the US, they become less committed to church, more like the native-born population in this regards.
Research has shown that children of immigrants who maintain a strong desire to please their parents and focus on education are more likely to succeed than those children who embrace “American” values of individual freedom and self-satisfaction.
So perhaps what we really want is for these children of immigrants to be less American!
Delving further, we begin to scrape at the dark underbelly of American mythology, the American Dream. This cherished narrative tells us that anybody can make it with hard work and determination. There are enough examples of immigrants and native minorities who have “made it” to fuel the fiction that there are no longer structural barriers such as racism, discrimination, and segregation that in fact relegate most immigrants and native minorities to “second class” status. Particularly in cases where strong co-ethnic communities are not available, darker-skinned immigrants often assimilate not into middle-class white America, but into working class or impoverished minority status. These immigrants experience segregation and discrimination, along with lower educational and economic outcomes in contrast to the “America” we believe everybody can achieve. Latinos join African Americans, as well, in being disproportionately captured by the American criminal justice system. It should be obvious that these are systemic barriers that need to be expunged from the “America” we are expecting immigrants to assimilate into.
This article has uncovered the complexity in the concept of “Americanization”, exposing the fallacies of nativists views that call for rapid assimilation into a presumed static, “pure American” identity. Ethnic identities have become part of what it means to be American, with two-way flows between the “ethnic” and the “American”. In many cases, this interaction exposes weaknesses and flaws in American culture, offering America with much needed perspective and insight. Rather than fearing immigrants and the cultures they bring with them, we see them as a positive, strengthening force that should be welcomed and encouraged. In this way, the notion of the American identity will be refined and improved, and yes, changed over time.