When does an immigrant feel truly American?

Last year, 694,193 people became new Americans.

How has their experience been different than earlier immigrants?

Louis Mendoza, chairman of the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies at the University of Minnesota, wrote in The New York Times that technology has changed the melting pot:

Leaving home is not what it once was. Staying connected to one’s community of origin is easier. In the past, we expected assimilation of every immigrant, and this was reinforced by our social institutions, be it through teachers, religious leaders, or politicians. We now know that one can truly live bilingually, biculturally and transnationally.

Michael Jones-Correa, also in The New York Times, is more skeptical about a new-found acceptance of a bilingual world. Immigrants – even if they are full citizens – don’t always feel embraced by natives.

If immigrants are grudgingly only tolerated as residents, they are very unlikely to feel they are full members of society. This may result in their pulling back from social and political engagement, or it could fuel the opposite reaction, with immigrants pressing their demands when threatened, as many did in the 2006 marches in the United States for immigrants’ rights.

Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about the 18 million Americans who were born in another country and became naturalized citizens.

We want to hear from both sides of the immigrant experience. If you’re a naturalized citizen, do you feel fully American? And if you are a native, when do you consider someone fully American?

20120906_citizen-wheat.jpg89.3 The Current DJ Mark Wheat becomes a naturalized American citizen (MPR / Nate Ryan)

–Stephanie Curtis,social media host

  • Russell Hamm

    My wife and I were Naturalized on July 6, 2011 after living in the US for 15 years. While we always feel a connection to our home country, two events have made us truly feel American.

    First, the Naturalization ceremony. It is truly a beautiful event where everyone celebrates both their roots as well as our new home.

    The second event was the 2012 election. Having and taking the opportunity to vote solidified our feeling of being American.

    I will still cheer for team Canada when it comes to hockey though. 😉


    Russell Hamm

  • Here’s my top-ten list of what we should expect from those who want to become Americans (and those who are already Americans, for that matter). The list was first published in a National Review Online column a decade ago [link: http://old.nationalreview.com/comment/comment091200d.shtml ], and it is fleshed out in Congressional testimony [link: http://judiciary.house.gov/hearings/May2007/Clegg070523.pdf ]:

    1. Don’t disparage anyone else’s race or ethnicity.

    2. Respect women.

    3. Learn to speak English.

    4. Be polite.

    5. Don’t break the law.

    6. Don’t have children out of wedlock.

    7. Don’t demand anything because of your race or ethnicity.

    8. Don’t view working and studying hard as “acting white.”

    9. Don’t hold historical grudges.

    10. Be proud of being an American.

  • Mark H.

    I started to feel more American when I went back to college and then law school after another career. One of the values which I feel is very American is that of “optimism.” Everyone here was so supportive of my decision, and I truly felt the sense of opportunity in America. By contrast, my family/friends in my home country of Scotland were very skeptical of my decision – not exactly optimistic.

  • Mark

    I am the in process of applying for my citizenship after living here for a number of years. Although I was eligible to become a citizen a few years ago, I decided to apply only once I did feel American instead of just applying because I was eligible.

  • Dawn Stevenson

    Kerri posited language use as a determiner:

    Let’s hope the feeling of being an American is not language dependent, as that would block many Deaf folks who may not have facility with English, but who are very involved in their country’s happenings (often through interpreters).

  • Gilbert

    I am have Native Hawaiian and Puerto Rican heritage (I am also half Filipino), and never had a “choice” as to my citizenship (Hawai’i and Puerto Rico being colonized by America).

    It’s problematic to frame the experience of assimilation, as Kerri does, fully on those who fall outside prevailing notions of being “American”. Public policies, the media, the news, etc., consistently fail to reflect many of our realities (and often dismiss or disrespect us).

    Despite the exclusion, many of us strive to integrate our American identities with the traditions of our ethnic and racial backgrounds.

  • Dale

    My wife came here 15 years ago from Peru. She came from a coastal, ocean city with beaches and heat and arrived to cold MN in Dec. She didn’t feel like this was “home” for about 5 years. It happened when she visited Peru and realized she missed her house here in MN. She still speaks with an accent, and says she will NEVER understand all the cultural jokes, customs, watching football on Thanksgiving, etc, but definitely feels like this is home

  • Stephanie Curtis

    @gilbert I think that our guest, Nell Irvin Painter, would agree with you. Read one of her essays here.

  • Lisa

    I was born to American parents in Europe (my mother is a naturalized American); I moved to the U.S. 30 years ago but only began to really “feel like an American”, in spite of having been born an American citizen, in recent years, especially since the election of Barack Obama who has a worldview I can relate to.

  • Andrea

    I am a citizenship (and ESL) teacher. We had a similar conversation in my class this week. I see the United States as coming into the fullness of its destiny…a destiny we didn’t know of in the beginning, but a destiny that is unique to any other country in the world.

    I am also married to an African immigrant and have adopted an African orphan, among my 3 bi-racial children. My in-laws have also become citizens. They felt like citizens the first time they voted in 2008.

  • Stephanie Curtis

    Ruben Martinez says that Roger Clegg’s list sounds a lot like a list of beliefs of conservative, Catholic, Latino immigrant families.

  • Marge

    One doesn’t have to be from a foreign country to feel like he/her isn’t able to assimilate. Move to another region in the country or sometimes even a different place within a state. I overheard a comment at the elections where an individual asked another why one of us wasn’t running for a local government position. The person running could have ancestors back to the DAR for all I know. The nominee, from a distant state, was of western European descent from like many people in the area, but his ethnicity may have been different from those in the area. He was not from “here”.

  • For the “Americans” that are impatient for immigrants to learn our language and “act American” I would ask, how many other countries have they been in and used that counties native language exclusively? We all need to remember that without immigrants there would be no modern America. Our melting pot has been borrowing from other cultures for centuries.

  • Wong

    I am currently a permanent resident here in MN, born in Colombia, half Chinese half Colombian. Technically a citizian of Colombia. I have been in the US since 91 never been back or contributed anything to Colombia, not because I am down playing Colombia or China, i am extremely proud of my heritage but I’m now 30 a member of the US Army, I have paid taxes to the US since I was 15. My English is 3 times better then my Spanish. So by each year that goes by I’m losing more and of my 1st language. I feel that I have contributed more to the US in corrilation to the contributions of a large hand full of actual US born Americans to the US. I wish I could vote but because I’m not considered a citizen I am not allowed to. I don’t know my owns countries national anthem but I know it for the US. I know more about the history of America then manyUS born citizens. The people that scream they are American with hate in their voice towards the indifferent are to me not American. The day after the election my boss asked me did you vote I responded I cant vote. She was shocked why, because I’m not a citizen, she responed but your in the Army. I responded with, that’s something to think about huh with a smile.

  • Charlotte

    As an employer I was invited to attend a number of citizenship ceremonies. It was one of the happiest moments of the lives of the new citizens. Everyone should attend one.

    Alternately- can the assimilation process be defined in terms of lutefisk?

  • Chue

    As a Hmong American, I have always considered myself the 1.5 generation. We have always had a feeling of not being Hmong enough or American. Although many people come here as refugees, my family have always been in “refugee” mode too long to feel totally welcomed as an American. Many times I have faced being called a “Paper Citizen” even though I was born here. A comment on the caller who commented on people refusing to melt and not speaking the language of the host country it is not only happening in America. While trying to find my own identity, I left to study in China, I also notice many ex-pats who have lived in China for years and refused to learn Chinese and believe that they are not obligated or obliged to. Thoughts?

  • Gilbert

    The “list” by Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity are comprised of assumptions that would NOT help many people of color feel “American”.

    Also, the caller who suggested that we reverse the hyphenation (and place “American” before our ethnicity or race) — this directly challenges our capacity to develop our own sense of what it means to be American. Many of us already have identities imposed on us by mainstream society. Isn’t the freedom to create our own identities a part of a more equitable American experience?

  • Makeda

    I am proud to be “African” American. I cannot try to ‘assimilate’ myself into this society any more than I already have until racism and white privilege are fully acknowledged and eliminated. Those darker people of color who are immigrants do not know my story or appreciate it in ways that benefit me or people like me.

  • JD Davis

    There is one over-riding problem… U.S. like the rest of the world, is now totally over-populated. It doesn’t matter where immigrants are from, how many more people can we absorb without continually affecting the quality of life for everyone – water, food, jobs, more building in protected areas, etc. etc.? JD

  • Unknown

    Good discussion. Short summary- I guess one of the many identity questions that comes with being adopted is that I’m a naturalized citizen. I guess technically that means I’m an immigran(… and can never be President). While I consider myself American, I still always get asked where I’m from by strangers. They don’t mean city or another U.S. state. They’re flustered when I don’t give them the answer they want. Eventually, I explain I’m adopted. Interesting, that as an Asian, the first reaction is that I’m an “other” despite over 30 yrs of being a citizen. Is this as prevalent a question and expectation for white immigrants or white intercountry adoptees? or is it just because I’m in the Midwest? While others like me are citizens, we will always be questioned on our status. I suppose in this strange way, I’m empathetic towards how we welcome immigrants into our communities and accept the word “American” is ever evolving.

  • JulieK

    My great -great grandparents immigrated from Germany in the mid 1800s. My grandfather spoke German and Russian. Thickly accented English. My Grandfather on the other side of my family came from Norway in early 1900s. They all spoke Norwegian at home,as did the kids at home. Some of the older ones never did learn American English. The children learned English at school. My elderly neighbor who lived across the street from me for 20 years -her grandparents immigrated. She spoke Norwegian as did her children, at home. She still had a very thick accent. She told me that her teacher had told them to speak English at home. Walking home from school, the children laughed over this saying, “Why-who would understand us?”–They thought that was a ridiculous idea. She quit going to church (she told me) when they began to switch to ‘English Only ‘ services. My Grandparent’s on one side attended church services in German until the 1940s. Other side had Norwegian services at their church one day a month until around the same time. I’ve worked with elderly who have stated they spoke Scandinavian languages at home, but had to switch to English when they moved to a more German township.

  • Marcos

    I came to the United States as a child from Mexico. My experience is that the US is schizophrenic in its attitude to immigrants. From society as a whole, I feel alienated and not accepted. Those who know me, who have direct contact with me, are far more accepting.

  • Mary

    I find it interesting that some Minnesotans in particular forget so easily our own history, one in which immigrants from all over Europe, including Germany, Norway and Sweden, held very tight to their language, religion and culture. I grew up in a very tight Irish community in St. Paul. How soon we forget!

  • Kirk

    Weren’t the same criticisms made of early European immigrants? Only speak their language, hang out with like minded people go to the same churhes? My grandfather emigrated from Sweden in his early 20’s and eventually moved to Duluth. He learned English but spoke Swedish at home.

    We are a nation of immigrants.

  • Matt

    When moving to a new country immigrants need to respect local laws and customs. They can expect their new country to understand but not conform to you home countries customs/laws. Several years ago a cab driver would not pick me up at the airport because I had duty free alcohol. I was at a grocery store and a person would not scan my pork products. This is unacceptable.

  • Manjunan

    I was born and raised in Sri Lanka and came to the US when i was twenty one. I have now lived in the US for almost thirty years, seventeen of those in the east coast and the next thirteen in the midwest[minneapolis]. I am a naturalized Citizen. I have two careers, both which i chose and work hard in. One is obscure and uniquely western and the other is quite global and both are extremely rewarding.

    I find that my opinions on the immigrant experience, the american dream, entitlement etc etc are somewhat controversial and may not be “politically” correct……….however i feel the they address some core issues and need to be raised.

    Thank you for this segment.


  • Eric

    Disappointed that your historical specialist didn’t talk at all about colonization and all of the evils that grew out of this to connect it to present immigration. Key point: we ARE NOT all immigrants; we are direct or indirect descendants of colonists (minus native folk). Euroamerican, white, caucasian, take your pick folk need to come to terms with this and then use that lens to look at immigration.

  • Berimba

    Here’s an anthem of immigrants and children of immigrants from my former a band a few years ago related to this.

    Think of the bigger picture people, the True America.


  • Tim Kleinpaste

    My Dutch grandparents came to this country in 1918. They settled in a Dutch community with a Dutch church. They spoke Dutch in their home. They spoke Dutch in their church. They learned English and practiced English in public. It would be more accurate to call it DutchEnglish.

    My father spoke both Dutch and English fluently as a child. During his early adulthood, the church services changed to English, as the Dutch settlers became more familiar with it and their children spoke English primarily.

    My father married my mother, who was from a Danish community six miles away. Her background was similar to my father’s, except it started in the Danish community.

    My siblings and I speak English. We don’t know a lick of either Dutch or Danish.

    I think being “American” is a generational evolution, and I can understand that first generation feeling more fringe American then their children and grandchildren.

    Most, if not all, immigrants come to this country for opportunity. That can be jobs, religious freedom, escape from persecution, etc.

    English is the language that allowed the Dutch community to do business with the Danish community, and for my father to meet my mother.

    To expect a first generation immigrant to be fluent in English out of the box is about the most foolish expectation to be put upon these new arrivals. It realistically will take three generations for that assimilation.

    Is my family’s history in this country much different from Hmong, Somali, Mexican, Peruvian, or any other current immigrant?

    I think not.

  • Sela

    Thanks for the segment, I was able to listen to part of it while I was driving. I am an immigrant from India and have lived here for over 13 yrs now. I have a friend who is from India too, who has a PhD from one of the best schools in the US, has a few patents published and a handful of papers published in peer reviewed journals. Recently this friend of mine was at a local Walmart with his family and was conversing with his wife in Bangla the language spoken in his native state of West Bengal in India. A Caucasian man stopped and yelled at him…”why dont you learn to speak in English!” Similar incidents have happened to other friends of mine who are not from India but from other countries. I agree that immigrants need to know English to follow the law of the land, and interact with the local people. But why is there this requirement that even if you are having a private conversation in public that it has to be in English? Any why is there the impression that anyone who speaks another language does not speak English?

    At the same time it is interesting to see that US companies now have biligual labels on products. They seem to see value in doing it and making business with it.

    I also heard a caller say that this is a melting pot and everyone needs to meld into it. I disagree. I remember listening to an African American poet/musician on NPR a few years ago which has stuck to my head – why can’t this country be a salad bowl instead of a melting pot? Where every person is able to keep his unique flavor, like the onoin, cucumber, tomato and luttuce in a salad bowl have their unique flavors and they can be connected with a common sald dressing which can be the true American spirit of Freedom, Liberty and Justice?

  • sarah

    As seniors myself and my husband chose and were invited to live here through our family being American. We do not take anything from the economy which makes us proud and we pay our taxes. We love living in America – a bit of a surprise- and are proud to be part though not yet citizens. (We haven’t been here long enough) Once we are citizens my first loyalty will be to this country. Thank you Minnesota for your welcome. from two seniors.

  • Shiva Elayedath

    I was listening to the program earlier today. I heard one caller saying that America needs to be a melting pot and I don’t agree with that. I’m a first generation immigrant who is not a citizen as yet. I remember listening to an African American poet about 6 or 7 years ago ( it’s a shame I didn’t catch his name) on morning edition who said that we should be a salad bowl where every piece brings in its own flavor, instead of a melting pot where everything has the same flavor or no flavor at all.

  • Islam

    I never felt American, ppl generally selfish uneducated about minorities

  • Peter

    The average American has the attention and foresight of a rabbit. Anything that moves slower than a TV commercial or is farther out than 3 months cannot be mentally processed. People are too stupid to understand that in 20 years from now, the language, culture, civility, infrastructure, and politics will resemble that of the same 3rd-world countries where all the immigrants come from. Instead, they are talking about “melting pot” and social utopian romance BS.

    So, what does “truly American” mean, if it does not exist anymore?

    Btw, I am a white immigrant from Western Europe, and feel like an endangered species.