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What Makes Us Who We Are

“Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions… We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America… Our identity as a nation – unlike many other nations – is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood. Being an American involves the embrace of high ideals and civic responsibility.”

~George W. Bush, during a speech on Oct. 19, 2017


Albert Einstein was arguably the greatest physicist of the 20th century. Andrew Carnegie was one of the wealthiest American businessmen of the 19th century. Elie Wiesel was a Nobel-prize winning writer. John Muir was a world famous naturalist. While all these men came from diverse backgrounds and professions, they all have one thing in common; they are all American immigrants. These are just a few examples of the countless immigrants who helped define America and helped make it into a leading world power.

America is in the middle of a much needed and long overdue conversation about race, bias, and immigration. And when our communities change demographically—and when immigrant communities become more racially and religiously diverse, as they are today—this conversation becomes even more important. America is grappling in very public ways with what a more racially and religiously diverse America means for both policy and everyday culture.

One of the most frequent arguments I hear when talking about immigration is that there are too many Americans struggling to find jobs and that we need to take care of our own. This worldview can be summed up in the catchphrase, “America First.” But this is a false choice. When we welcome immigrants into our communities by opening up pathways to citizenship, we stimulate the economy.

Throughout our history, immigrants have helped power America’s economic growth, technological innovation, and prosperity. All types of immigrants, regardless of how they came to America, contribute to our culture and economy. As Americans, we all do our part to contribute, and we’re all better for having hardworking new immigrants as contributing members of our communities by being customers in our stores, paying payroll taxes and giving to local churches and charities. People around the world have moved here throughout history to work hard in order to make life better for the next generation, and the constant revitalization of the American spirit— bringing new energy, new cultures and new ideas here—makes us strong as a country.

According to the Small Business Association, Immigrants make up more than 28% of American small businesses and employ more than 10% of America’s private sector workers. This is just one of numerous statistics which support contributions immigrants make to the American economy. Today, immigrants across the country are breathing new life into communities that suffer from disinvestment and population decline. They are providing energy and unique diversity to accelerate growth in emerging industries, retail, exports, and innovation, fueling the competitiveness of American companies and communities in the global economy.

All the statistics which support the argument for a robust immigration policy should be enough to convince any pragmatist of the benefits, but when I speak with many of my fellow Americans, I find they are unmoved by the evidence. There is another argument which overrides pragmatism; it’s an argument founded in fear of people who are unlike ourselves. People are afraid that accepting the cultures and values of new immigrants will diminish and erode their own cultural traditions and values.

It can be all too tempting to discard this argument against immigration as bigotry, but if we wish to advocate for pragmatic policies which strengthen our nation, we must address this argument, because many people will react more to their emotional responses than pragmatism and fear is a powerful emotion.

To counter this argument, I can only point to America’s history. America has seen wave upon wave of immigration into this country as a result of various world events. Each new wave of immigrants brought with it a rich cultural heritage that did nothing to diminish established American heritage and values, but instead enriched our country with more diversity, contributing to our national identity as one people and culture formed from the many: e pluribus unum. There is no reason to believe new arrivals to our nation would do anything less than previous generations of immigrants.

Americans may not all share the same history, but we share one future as a country. We need to stop thinking in terms of us versus them and start thinking in terms of just us: Americans united by the bonds of shared freedom and equality. If we can do that, there’s nothing we can’t do together.


Author: William Gardner. Photo: Phillipe L Photography, Flickr.