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What Does It Mean To Be an American?

I live in Chevy Chase, Maryland, which is both a “town” and an “unincorporated census-designated place (CDP)״ in Montgomery County. And, no, it’s not named after the famous comedian. It’s a small suburban community of about 3,000 people—mostly middle class and well-educated types—that borders the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Chevy Chase has very little history and no tourist attractions. But I like the place and am friendly with some of my neighbors in the area, and I will probably feel a certain sense of nostalgia for it if I relocate to another part of the country.

Yet I would never say that “I am proud to be a Chevy Chaser” as far as my personal and collective identity is concerned. Come to think about it, I probably wouldn’t even identify myself as a Marylander, although I may feel a certain sense of collective pride when I learn that an Oscar winner was born and raised here.

The problem is that many of today’s pro-immigration advocates expect us to feel about the United States in the same way that I feel about Chevy Chase or Maryland.

The argument promoted by the guys who meet in Davos, Switzerland, each year—or for that matter, by proponents of multicultural and universal values on the left—is that globalization has created One World and a Global Community in which individuals should be able to change their national citizenship in the same way American citizens can change their state residency.

At the end of the day, moving from Mexico or Egypt (or Dagestan) to the United States is supposed to be not very different than relocating from Chevy Chase, Maryland, to Peoria, Illinois and should be made equally easy. It’s all about searching for better economic opportunities, a new job perhaps, more space to develop oneself. No big deal!

Eventually you’ll adjust to your new surroundings, which are, after all, just another geographical-administrative locale that welcomes the global you with the multiple identities that you have with other kinds of communities worldwide. From that perspective, having an American passport is not so different from having a Maryland driver’s license. It’s certainly good to have around, but the American citizenship is only one component, and perhaps not even the central one, to defining your identity. For example, being a Muslim of Chechen extraction may trump the significance of being an American.

So I find amazing that in all the recent debate over immigration in the United States there is an almost complete absence of any serious discussion of what it means to be an American citizen today in terms of what it really means to be an American, period.

While the issue of national identity is central to similar immigration debates that are taking place in, say, France, Sweden, or Australia, in the United States much of the focus has been on legal issues (should citizenship be granted to “illegals”), the impact on the economy (to what extent immigration accelerates or slows  growth), and the implications for security.

These are all certainly important issues that need to be debated. I tend to be on the side of those who believe that encouraging skilled immigrants to come to America (Asian immigrants come to mind) will help grow the economy in the long run, and that unskilled and poorly educated immigrants could become a drag on the economy in the short run.

And as an immigrant and a naturalized citizen who had to follow the long and excruciating legal route to receiving an American citizenship, I find something wrong in the idea of giving a pass to those who didn’t and violated the law in the process.

But then, is there is someone out there who is volunteering to kick hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children out of their homes, force them into buses, and deport them to Mexico? Well? I didn’t think so. So some sort kind of a system that would allow some foreign citizens who have lived and worked in this country for years to apply for American citizenship makes sense to me.

Yet it sounds to me like a lot of wishful thinking on the part of some pro-immigration advocates to dismiss the concerns raised by critics about the difficulties in integrating Mexican and other Hispanic illegal and legal immigrants into the national-cultural fabric of American life. You have to be deaf (“For English press 1”) or a bit deluded to dismiss the growing signs of an evolving bilingual America—represented by a split between “Anglos” and “Latinos”—by arguing that, well, it wasn’t so different with the early waves of Italian immigrants.

But there were not millions of Italians living across our border, and the immigrants from Italy were not exposed to 24/7 Italian-language cable television channels and other means of communication that would have helped create or strengthen a sense of cultural separatism. And unlike in the multicultural America of the early 21st century, America during the early 20th century still maintained a strong sense of a national identity that helped assimilate foreign immigrants into the American cultural milieu to which they ended up making their own contributions.

It’s therefore too bad that much of the criticism of immigration on the political right has been dominated by the never-ending preoccupation with building a fence, as well as derogatory remarks about immigrants and foreigners. The discourse has taken a somewhat xenophobic flavor that has antagonized even members of the Asian-American community who, as I argued in another post, are natural political allies of the Republican Party. It has helped create the impression that conservatives are racists and Republicans are nativists who don’t like immigrants who don’t look like them.

Instead, Republicans and conservatives should have stressed the need to have a system that opens America’s doors to immigrants who can make America more productive and want to help preserve and strengthen its historical and cultural identity. And that has nothing to do with one’s ethnic, religious, or racial origins. Think about it—if one of the Founding Fathers had landed in contemporary America, with whom would he be able to conduct an intelligent conversation: your average Valley Girl or a daughter of immigrants from India? And let’s not forget that the Supreme Court consists today of Catholics and Jews.

My personal feeling, based on anecdotal evidence collected during a trip around the country, is that much of the criticism among Americans over immigration reflects fears over the loss of national-cultural identity, as manifested in forms of bilingualism, and is driven by the perception that many Hispanics cannot or don’t want to assimilate into the American community. I rarely hear complaints about immigrants “stealing״ American jobs.

So it seems to me that Republican politicians would win a lot of public support if they tried to shift the focus of the immigration debate to the cultural issue, specifically by insisting on preserving the English language as the lowest common denominator unifying this nation and by forcefully opposing the current trends towards bilingualism.

Interestingly enough, it was a conservative Republican Senator from California, S.I. Hayakawa, a Canadian-born American academic of Japanese ancestry, who was the founder of U.S. English, an organization dedicated to making English the official language of the United States. It included on its board many liberal public figures, including Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.

Indeed, while liberals and conservatives may disagree about it really means to be an American today, there shouldn’t be any debate over the need to preserve the role of the English language as a central component of the American identity. Or is there?

Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and foreign-policy analyst, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.

about the author

Leon Hadar is a foreign policy analyst, author, and contributing editor at TAC. He holds a Ph.D. from American University, and is the author of the books Quagmire: America in the Middle East and Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East. He is geopolitical expert with RANE Network, a former Cato Institute research fellow, and his articles have appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Washington Times, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and the National Interest.

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