Immigration and Society

What does it mean to be an American?

December 15, 2018  • Institute Staff

The Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program recently published Immigration & Civics: What Every American Should Know, which explores immigrant perspectives on US civic culture. Immigrants and their US-born children represent more than a quarter of the overall population of the United States, making it impossible to embrace American ideals—“we the people”—without also embracing immigrants. Yet debates about cultural literacy and US identity often omit immigrant voices. Now, with major demographic shifts, growing hostility toward immigrants, and rising nativism, it is essential to demonstrate shared values. Even now, a dangerous narrative persists—one claiming that those who are not literate in mainstream American culture do not belong in the United States. The Citizenship and American Identity Program is calling for a direct counter to that narrative—a 21st-century sense of identity that embodies the diversity of the nation’s past and present. Over the course of a year, the program traveled around the country asking immigrant leaders and advisers, “What do all Americans need to understand about immigrant experiences in this country?” and “What do new Americans need to know in order to navigate and acclimate to life here?” In the current moment, it is vital to define common knowledge. So the program is also crowdsourcing a new question: “What are 10 terms or references every American should know?” Submissions will automatically aggregate to a national list.