Since I was a kid in ever-increasingly Latino Los Angeles, I have been hearing about this doomed America. Several decades later, and another Independence Day having passed, I'm still waiting. Honestly, what does it take to rip America apart from within? New studies show we might be waiting awhile.
The uniqueness of our American identity is that it is, above all, contagious. While critics of immigration are quick to claim that new arrivals "don't want to be American" or "are weakening our common identity," Tufts political scientist Deborah Schildkraut's new book, Americanism in the Twenty-First Century, finds something much more benign, even graceful, in the American narrative. A nationwide survey validated a fact that is rather obvious to most Americans: Immigrants and those born in the country share similar views of what it means to be an American.
Regarding those great American notions of economic and political freedom, there is barely a distinction. Better still, Schildkraut told me, "This is not just about rights, but also about obligations and being engaged through this notion of civic republicanism." Immigrants and those born here believe in giving as much as they do in taking.
Schildkraut's book eviscerates misconceptions about a struggle for America's soul, fears that have lingered since our independence. Benjamin Franklin lamented an influx of Germans into colonial life. Present policy debates aside, the fear of America's identity being overwhelmed has affected a broad range of groups: the Irish Catholics in the 1840s; the Chinese in the 1880s; the Japanese in the 1940s.
Perhaps the most important contribution of Schildkraut's analysis is that immigrants and American natives agree that maintaining the cultural traditions of our ancestors is essential. As first-generation immigrants, who are most likely to maintain strong cultural ties, begin to assimilate, their children and grandchildren tend to regret their lack of strong ties to their mother country. It is truly American to be nostalgic for the non-American in most of us.
Schildkraut's findings are unlikely to influence heated debates about border security or self-deportation. But they should change the persistent stereotype that the immigrants themselves have a detrimental impact on American cohesion. Indeed, the study shows that immigrant groups tend to disavow assimilation only when they feel persecuted or alienated because of their place of birth.
Americans can maintain cohesion best by not being too worked up about some perceived lack of cohesion. It turns out that the ugliness around our immigration debate does far more to dismantle "who we are" than the presence of immigrants in our midst.
Juliette Kayyem writes for the Boston Globe.