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Op-Ed: What does it mean to be American? Ask an immigrant

Hands holding a small American flag rest on a paper showing the words to "The Star Spangled Banner."
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; Associated Press photo)

On this Independence Day, we will gather (finally!) with friends and family to celebrate our country and what it means to be American. But what that actually means continues to be the source of much debate.

Some who have pledged to “make America great again” desire to take the country back to a time before many nonwhite immigrants had arrived (and before African Americans, women and members of the LGBTQ community had gained any power or influence). Their definition of “American” is narrow, defensive and exclusive.

We’ve been here before. Xenophobia — our fear and hatred of foreigners — is as American as apple pie. And across the centuries, self-proclaimed patriotic citizens have blamed immigrants for all that is wrong in America — all that is un-American — while proclaiming their version of America and “American” to be the truest.

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

In 1925, eugenicist Madison Grant reported that an “influx of foreigners” would “submerge” U.S.-born white Americans and rallied others to his cause with the cry “America for the Americans.” The Ku Klux Klan fanned fears, claiming to speak for “all true Americans” when it condemned the “flood of foreigners” entering the country and pushing the “native-born” aside. Those (white) immigrants who continued to be allowed into the United States were exhorted to fully assimilate, abandon any loyalty to former homelands and reject hyphenated identities, as former President Theodore Roosevelt urged in 1916.

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A century later, Americans elected a new president, Donald Trump, who labeled Mexicans “rapists” and criminals, who pledged to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and who called for a “complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He spent his term working to achieve these goals and more.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Chinese people — and those assumed to be Chinese or Asian — were blamed for the coronavirus, most notably by Trump. Thousands of Asian Americans have reported being yelled at, spit upon, harassed and physically attacked. Some have been killed.

In March 2020, the Trump administration began treating immigration as a public health threat, closing U.S. borders and drastically restricting immigration. The country became gripped by a second epidemic: one of fear, xenophobia and racism.

During the pandemic, the administration halted the entry of almost every type of immigrant seeking to settle here and imposed the most sweeping immigration restrictions in American history. As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden pledged to end the “unrelenting assault on our values and our history as a nation of immigrants” and instead implement a “fair and humane immigration system.” But the backlash has been fierce, and immigration reform efforts have stalled.

We are at an inflection point. After the departure of Trump, his xenophobia and racism continue to shape how we understand both immigration and what it means to be American. How do we challenge this worldview?

One way is to recognize that because xenophobia is an inextricable part of systemic racism in the U.S., it must be fought alongside racism. We need to examine and protest the unequal treatment of immigrants as part of this structure. We must counter the narratives that identify immigration as a threat with facts: COVID-19 is not the “Chinese virus.” Immigrants are essential workers, constituting 17% of the civilian labor force. 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, give immigrants the power and the means to tell their own stories themselves.

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

For Arminda Rodriguez, becoming American meant sacrificing all that she knew and loved to help the next generation. She was an immigrant without papers when she gave birth to her daughter Rubi in Brownsville, Texas. Then came years of hard work supporting Rubi and her siblings. Now a college 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 be raised in the United States and get an education here…. I appreciate her more than ever.”

Thiago Heilman came to the U.S. as a child from Brazil and felt fully American even as he lived in the shadows as an undocumented immigrant. After President Obama established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for people brought here as children, Heilman was finally able to get a work permit and is now a writer living and working in New York City.

“It took a while, but my American dream is finally coming true,” he says. “Many things that natural-born citizens take for granted are finally happening to me. I’m enjoying this freedom every day.”

Oballa Oballa’s American story is about giving back to his adopted country. After he and his family survived a genocidal attack against their tribe in Ethiopia, they trekked on foot to South Sudan and waited for 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp before they were finally admitted into the U.S. in 2013. Now he’s a health unit coordinator and recently became the first Black elected official in his town, Austin, Minn., where Spam is made. 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 one another than the divisive rhetoric about immigration would have us believe. We each want safety, freedom, opportunity. We want to honor our cultural heritage while also becoming American. Xenophobia is not just about immigrants. It is also about who has the power to define what it means to be American, who gets to enjoy 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 the knowledge that we can no longer function divided as we currently are. We are — and always have been — dependent upon one another. If we are to survive and thrive, we need to commit ourselves to building a future that is not about “us” versus “them,” but “we.”

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


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