That was a question posed by fellow journalist Josie Moralidad Ziman to Barbara Gonzales of Immigration and ustoms Enforcement (ICE), at a recent Talakayan sponsored by the Philippine Embassy.
“I don’t know,” Ms. Gonzales replied.
Her response surprised me. So I rose to say simply that immigrants from a hundred years ago were mostly white, while immigrants today are mostly people of color, leaving it to the audience to make their own inferences.
I was trying to suggest, of course, that demographic changes have shaped U.S. immigration policy, a contentious and complicated issue that has polarized the American public.
According to the Pew Research Center, the largest wave of immigrants a century ago hailed largely from Europe, notably from Germany, United Kingdom, Canada and Italy. Today, the predominance of Latin American and Asian immigration starkly contrasts with earlier trends.
And that’s how the national debate about “Who is an American” began.
American historian Samuel Huntington raised this in his book “Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity.” He says that the true core of American identity is “a byproduct of the Anglo-Protestant culture – with its English language, Christian faith, work ethic and values of individualism and dissent.”
In his review of Huntington’s book, Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post notes that what threatens that core is “the ideology of multiculturalism; the new waves of immigrants from Latin America, especially Mexico, whom Huntington believes are less able to assimilate than past immigrants; and the threat of the Spanish language, which Huntington treats as a disease infecting the cultural and political integrity of the United States.”
To Huntington, “There is no Americano dream. There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican-Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.”
Latin American immigrants and their offspring, Huntington goes on to say, “do not disperse throughout the country as thoroughly as past immigrants.” They are mainly interested in welfare benefits and they take over everyone’s jobs.
Not surprisingly, those arguing for building walls and beefing up deportation forces find much to like in Huntington, who describes the Hispanic threat as an “illegal demographic invasion.”
Huntington blames “pliant politicians and intellectual elites who uphold diversity as the new prime American value, largely because of their misguided guilt toward victims of alleged oppression. So they encourage multiculturalism over a more traditional identity.”
Predictably, Trump and his followers favor Huntington’s call for “a renewed nationalism devoted to preserving and enhancing those qualities that have defined America since its founding.”
But this backlash against multiculturalism from White Americans was already happening long before Trump. Extreme elements, like the alt-right, “fear the replacement of the white culture that made America great by black or brown cultures that are in their view, intellectually and morally inferior.”
What we saw in the 2016 elections, therefore, was, in Huntington’s view, “a racist tide focused on protecting that which makes America great.”
Defining what it means to be an American has been the focus of Filipino American immigrant rights activist Jose Antonio Vargas. “What it means to be an American,” he says, “is less about who you are than what you are about— how you live your life, how you contribute to this country, how you pledge allegiance to a flag hoping and praying it will make room for you. What it means to be an American is in the hearts of the people who, in their struggles and heartaches, in their joys and triumphs, fight for America and fight to be American every day.”
As Carlos Bulosan puts it, “America is in the heart.”
And it doesn’t mean you have to dream in English.
Indeed, America’s view of immigration and the nature of citizenship itself has grown increasingly more complex and nuanced over the years. Defining who is an American is a conversation we all need to engage in.
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