The question of what it means to be American has been debated since the founding of our republic, and we are at another moment when the question has taken on a new urgency.
In The Federalist Papers No. 2: Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence for the Independent Journal, John Jay wrote to the people of New York arguing for the ratification of the US Constitution around the issue of cultural unity. He reasoned for unity because Americans were “a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established their general liberty and independence.”
In 1787, Jay was nuanced in that he argued an important part of American identity was also a belief in the American creed such as equality, liberty, individualism, and independence, which are enshrined in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution he was working to ratify.
Others have interpreted Jay’s emphasis on culture more narrowly, arguing for a more tribal American identity. The late Samuel Huntington, a Harvard professor of political science, writes in his book Who are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, “the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America’s traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially Mexico.” Huntington argues that unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into US culture, thereby rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built America. Huntington then warns this persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages, and we ignore it at our own peril.
Huntington’s nationalism, and parochial extension of John Jay’s line of reasoning, is in direct conflict with the American identity Abraham Lincoln espoused against the anti-immigrant sentiment of his day. In a speech the future president gave in Chicago on July 10, 1858, as part of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln discussed how on every 4th of July Americans celebrate our Founding Fathers. However, he argues brilliantly that those who have immigrated to the United States from Germany, Ireland, France, and Scandinavia are every bit as American as those who trace their ancestry back to the founding of our republic because the principles of the Declaration of Independence serve as an electric chord running through all our hearts.
In embracing an ideal and principle that was meant to be taken literally, namely that all men are created equal, Lincoln also rejects Douglas’s beliefs that the ideals of the Declaration were reserved solely for descendants of the American Revolution and not later arrivals.
Remnants of these disagreements continue today. In his presidential farewell address, Ronald Reagan discussed the renewal that immigration brings to our identity and nation. “Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity,” said Reagan, “we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier. This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”
Reagan views align with those of Abraham Lincoln that beliefs in our founding principles and the common American culture being continually enriched is what makes our identity.
In sharp contrast, President Trump today attacks Hispanics and Muslims as being different than other Americans and a threat to our nation. This nativist sense of national identity calls to mind the nationalism of Samuel Huntington and the most parochial reading of Federalist 2. The irony that Trump holds up the Norwegian immigrant as an ideal while Lincoln had to argue Scandinavians should be part of the American family in his 1858 speech is lost on him.
Like then-Senate candidate Lincoln and President Reagan, I believe Americans share in our nation’s principles and political culture set forth in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
I also believe there has been and remains a cultural expectation and responsibility that immigrants will not only bring diverse perspectives but also join their new country as citizens. Jürgen Habermas, a German sociologist and philosopher, wrote of an Iranian immigrant to Germany who chooses to stand with other Germans at a concentration camp to participate in the acknowledgment of the nation’s collective guilt, even though his ancestors were not part of those crimes.
We honor our achievements as a sense of American culture, such as winning World Wars I and II, putting a man on the moon, prevailing in the Cold War, securing civil rights, and ushering in the digital age. We acknowledge the sacrifices of the generations of men and women who spilled blood, whether in places like Normandy or Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, so we can have opportunity. We also, regardless of background, have common national traditions such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Halloween; and sports such as baseball, basketball, and American football that bind us. We engage in philanthropy, like following the rules, are generally neighborly and friendly, and keep public places clean. Yet, a hallmark of being an American is also carrying on the cultural traditions of our ancestors whether by bringing soccer, our native cuisines, our ethnic dances, or holidays like Diwali and Eid al-Adha to this country.
In the twenty-first century, Americans are more ethnically and racially diverse than we have ever been. Much of this change has been driven by immigration. In 1960, Europeans accounted for seven of eight immigrants in the United States. By 2010, nine out of ten were from outside Europe. In 1965, 84 percent of the country was non-Hispanic white, compared with 62 percent today. Nearly 59 million immigrants have arrived in the United States in the past fifty years, mostly from Latin America and Asia. This immigration has brought young workers who help offset the large-scale retirement of the baby boomers. Today, a near-record 14 percent of the country’s population is foreign born compared with just 5 percent in 1965. This diversity strengthens our country and makes it a better place to live.
At a time when growth in the US economy and those of other developed nations is slowing, immigration is vitally important to our economy. Immigrants today are more than twice as likely to start a new business. In fact, 43 percent of companies in the 2017 Fortune 500, including several technology firms in Silicon Valley, were launched by foreign-born entrepreneurs, many arriving on family visas. Immigrants also take out patents at two-to-three times the rate of native-born citizens, benefiting our entire country. Family and skilled-based visas complement each other: America would become less attractive to those who come on skills-based visas without the chance for their families to join them.
However, it is important to ensure that these economic benefits help Americans. For too long, some corporations have abused H-1B, L-1, and H-2B visas as a cheap way to displace American workers. To close these loopholes and overhaul the visa programs to protect workers and crack down on foreign outsourcing companies that deprive qualified Americans of high-skill jobs, I have cointroduced bipartisan legislation to restore the H-1B visa program back to its original intent, protect American workers, and make sure we are also providing opportunities for STEM and developing talent here at home.
When done right—as John Feinblatt, chairman of the New American Economy, stated—“The data shows it, and nearly 1,500 economists know it: immigration means more talent, more jobs, and broad economic benefits for American workers and companies alike.”
For many immigrants to this nation, a challenge in the American identity is finding a balance and respect for some of our existing American traditions, while also being proud of one’s own heritage.
I grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. It is fairly suburban, rural, and was 98 percent Caucasian in the 1980s. When my family moved onto Amsterdam Avenue, there was a little bit of chatter and concern on our street that the Khannas were moving in. My parents finally figured out what the fuss was about: On Christmas Eve, everyone on our street would put candle lights on the street. We are of Hindu faith, and there was concern that we wouldn’t. My Dad said that we would be happy to put the candle lights on the street, and we put out lights every year. We were always invited to and attended all the Christmas Eve parties. I also loved playing touch football in my neighbors’ backyards, participating in the same Little League games, avoiding cars while hitting hockey pucks on the road, and going to neighbors’ homes during school candy sales to raise money for charity.
But I never associated my childhood in anyway with giving up my core identity. Let me explain. Years later as a twenty-three-year-old, when I was interning for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (daughter of Robert Kennedy), her aide told me to go work on the Hill because I had an aptitude for policy. You cannot ever get elected, her aide said to me in a matter-of-fact tone, given your faith and heritage. I refrained from writing to him when I won, pointing out that while his boss lost her race for Congress, I ended up winning mine by 20 points.
But I do remember talking to my parents back then about identity. They told me I will make it in this country if I just keep working hard and was ethical. It is a good and decent country, they assured me. But my Mom made me promise, given my grandfather’s struggle in jail during Gandhi’s independence movement, that I will never give up who I am. I never did.
Today, the grandson of a freedom fighter who remembers seeing his parents have their green cards stamped, represents the most economically powerful Congressional District in the world.
That is the story of America. That represents the hope of American immigrant families.
In many ways my story—born in Philadelphia on the bicentennial year of America’s founding in 1976 and growing up to represent Silicon Valley—is a testament to how open our nation still is to the dreams and aspirations of freedom-loving people who trace their lineage to every corner of the world.
We are still steps away from Lincoln’s hope of becoming a nation that lives up to our founding principles and ushers in a just and lasting peace. But here is what I know: we can be open to the voices of new immigrants without losing our core values or American culture—if anything, the new immigrants will only enrich our exceptional nation.
Rep. Ro Khanna represents Silicon Valley and California’s 17th Congressional District. Chris Schloesser, his legislative director, assisted with research for this piece.
Speaking of California and immigration, here’s how the Golden State’s population breaks down (the following numbers all courtesy of a May 2018 report by the Public Policy Institute of California). The nation state of 39.5 million residents is home to more than 10 million immigrants. In 2016, approximately 27% of California’s population was foreign-born (about twice the national percentage), with immigrants born in Latin America (51%) and Asia (39%) leading the way. Nearly eight in ten California immigrants are working-age adults (age 18 to 64)—that’s more than one-third of the entire states’ working-age population. A major concern for California’s future: the immigrant education gap. As recently as 2016, one-third (34%) of California’s immigrants hadn’t completed high school—more than four times that of US-born California residents (just 8%). Twenty-eight percent of California’s foreign-born residents hold at least a college bachelor’s degrees—again, less than California’s US-born residents (36%). Why that matters: the less education, the greater the challenge for immigrants to climb the economic ladder and make a go of it in California, home to high taxes, expensive housing, and a crushing cost of living.