Second opinion: what does it mean to be American? Ask an immigrant


On this Independence Day, we will come together (finally!) With our friends and family to celebrate our country and what it means to be American. But what this really means continues to be the source of much debate.

Some who are pledged to “make America even more beautiful” wish to take the country back to an era before many non-white immigrants arrived (and before African Americans, women, and members of the LGBTQ community have acquired any power or influence). Their definition of “American” is narrow, defensive and exclusive.

We have been here before. Xenophobia – our fear and hatred of strangers – is as American as apple pie. And through the centuries, self-proclaimed patriotic citizens have blamed immigrants for all that is wrong with America – all that is. non-American – while proclaiming that their version of America and “American” is the truest.

In the 1850s, anti-immigrant activists formed a new political party dedicated to restricting the rights and influence of Catholic immigrants and naturalized citizens. They called themselves the American Party and promoted a new definition of Americanity that named white Anglo-Saxon Protestant settlers as the true “natives” of the United States. “Americans must rule AmericaWas one of their slogans. By the early 1900s, some of America’s most influential thinkers and politicians increasingly defined Americanism through the prism of white supremacy.

In 1925, eugenicist Madison Grant reported that a “The influx of foreigners” “would overwhelm” White Americans born in the United States and rallied others to his cause with the cry “America for Americans”. The Ku Klux Klan stoked fears, claiming to speak for “all real Americans” when it condemned the “flood of foreigners” entering the country and pushing out “native people”. The (white) immigrants who continued to be allowed into the United States were urged to fully assimilate, abandon all loyalty to the old homelands, and reject hyphenated identities, as the old ones. President Theodore Roosevelt urged in 1916.

A century later, the Americans elected a new president, Donald Trump, who called Mexicans “rapists” and criminals, who pledged to build a wall along the US-Mexico border and who called has a “Complete and total stop of Muslims entering the United States”. He spent his tenure working to achieve these goals and more.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chinese – and those believed to be Chinese or Asians – have been blamed for the coronavirus, notably by Trump. Thousands of Asian Americans have said they have been yelled at, spat on, harassed and physically assaulted. Some have been killed.

In March 2020, the Trump administration began treating immigration as a threat to public health, closing US borders and drastically restricting immigration. The country has been plagued by a second epidemic: that of fear, xenophobia and racism.

During the pandemic, the administration halted the entry of nearly all types of immigrants seeking to settle here and imposed the most drastic immigration restrictions in American history. As presidential candidate, Joe Biden promised end the “relentless assault on our values ​​and our history as a nation of immigrants” and instead implement a “just and humane immigration system”. But the backlash has been fierce and immigration reform efforts have stalled.

We are at an inflection point. After Trump left, his xenophobia and racism continue to shape our understanding of both immigration and what it means to be American. How to challenge this vision of the world?

One way is to recognize that because xenophobia is an inextricable part of systemic racism in the United States, it must be fought alongside racism. We must examine and protest against the unequal treatment of immigrants within this structure. We must counter rhetoric that identifies immigration as a threat with facts: COVID-19 is not the “Chinese virus”. Immigrants are essential workers, constituting 17% of the civilian workforce. About two-thirds of Americans say that immigrants strengthen the country.

Another way to change the immigration narrative is to focus on real people and real stories. Better yet, empower immigrants and empower them to tell their own stories for themselves.

The Center for Research on the History of Immigration at the University of Minnesota did just that. the 375 stories we collected through our interactive digital storytelling website, created with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, will preserve what it means to be American for future generations.

For Arminda Rodriguez, becoming American meant sacrificing everything she knew and loved to help the next generation. She was an undocumented immigrant when she gave birth to her daughter Rubi in Brownsville, Texas. Then came years of hard work supporting Rubi and her siblings. Now a student in Texas, Rubi recognizes how much her mother gave up to give her a better life: “Thanks to my mother’s sacrifice, I was able to grow up in the United States and study here…. I appreciate it more than ever.

Thiago heilman came to the United States as a child from Brazil and felt fully American even though he lived in the shadows as an undocumented immigrant. After President Obama created the Child Arrivals Deferred Action Program for those brought here as children, Heilman was finally able to get a work permit and is now a writer living and working in New York. York.

“It took a while, but my American dream is finally coming true,” he says. “A lot of things that native born citizens take for granted are finally happening to me. I enjoy this freedom every day.

Oballa’s American History Oballa is to give back to his adopted country. After he and his family survived a genocidal attack on their tribe in Ethiopia, they walked to South Sudan and waited 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp before finally being admitted to the United States. in 2013. Now he is the coordinator of a health unit and recently became the first black elected official in his town, Austin, Minn., where spam is generated. His story, he believes, can give “hope to refugees who think the American dream is dead.He insists that in America, “if you come with a big dream, you can make your dream come true.” “

These immigrant stories show that we have more in common with each other than divisive immigration rhetoric would have us believe. We each want security, freedom, opportunity. We want to honor our cultural heritage while becoming American. Xenophobia does not only concern immigrants. It’s also about who has the power to define what it means to be American, who enjoys the privileges of American citizenship and who does not.

If we learn anything from the converging public health, social, political and economic crises of 2020, it may be from the knowledge that we can no longer function as divided as we currently are. We are – and always have been – dependent on each other. If we are to survive and prosper, we must commit to building a future that is not “us” versus “them”, but “us”.

Erika Lee is professor of history and Asian-American studies at the University of Minnesota. She is the most recent author of “America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States”.


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