To be an American



Tom Nardi

What does it mean to be an American? To some, the answer is simple. Wave the Stars and Stripes. Work hard. Love freedom. Speak English. Drink Coke. Look European. Be Protestant. To others, the answer isn’t so clear.

Is America a melting pot, where many different cultures are assimilated into the majority? Or are we a salad bowl, where each different component plays a role in forming a totally new whole? The conflict between cultural and civic nationalists today is fueling our debates over immigrants and immigration policy, just as it has for the past 125 years.

Last Friday Villanova sponsored a panel on immigration reform as a kickoff to the St. Thomas of Villanova weekend festivities. From an associate vice president of the National Hispanic Institute, to a former associate director of domestic policy for the Bush administration, the five speakers were united in one basic argument: immigration is happening, and we need to deal with it.

If we are to deal with immigration, how should we do so? American political history gives us a mixed picture at best. The Constitution of the United States contains precious little about immigration or naturalization policy, so we are dependent on various acts of Congress.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 gave the country its first national legislation dealing with immigration and our first notions of what an American citizen is, many of which remain with us today. An immigrant could gain citizenship if he lived within the United States for two years, if he proved to have good moral character and if he pledged allegiance to the Constitution. The act also restricted citizenship to “free white men.”

German, French, Irish, Catholics. Chinese, Italians, Poles, Japanese, Mexicans. All have been discriminated against for being something lesser – unworthy of incorporation into the American body. Why? Because cultural nationalists are afraid that immigrants won’t assimilate and won’t abandon their own culture to adopt that of the American majority.

The concept that immigrants are somehow an “other” – that we need to guard America against an intruder-is fueled by this cultural nationalism. We, of course, are superior in every way. And people coming here should have the decency to be just like us. The Chinese Exclusion Act first expressed this idea, that somehow there was a race, an entire people, unfit for the American Dream because they won’t be just like us.

Surely there are some common things that bind us. An understanding of the English language. A commitment to democratic principles. But is there more than that? We see it as unjust that people march under the Mexican flag in support of immigrant rights. But is that any different than people marching under the Irish flag on St. Patrick’s Day?

Is it fair to demand that a people renounce their culture while we keep our own, adhering to Irish or Italian norms while demanding that Hispanics drop theirs?

One of the strongest known instances of cultural nationalism, at least in Philadelphia, involves Joey Vento of Geno’s Steaks. Apparently ignorant of his own immigrant heritage, Vento put up a rather demanding sign. “This is America. When ordering, speak English.” It’s not enough that people go through the trouble, and indeed it is trouble, of coming to the United States.

Especially for Mexican and Asian immigrants, the journey to this country is perilous. As we have constructed a fortified border around the metropolitan areas in Southern California – south of San Diego, for instance – the path of the immigrants has been pushed out into the desert. People die struggling to come to a country where they can earn a living for themselves and their families. For instance, immigrants from Asia pack themselves in crates and cross the Pacific to shores where they might find freedom.

We used to believe that being American meant adhering to the Constitution – swearing allegiance to one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. And the government was willing to help bear the burden of integrating immigrants to our shore, with the assumption that they were allowed to be here in the first place.

Don’t we still accept the huddled masses of the world, those yearning to breathe free? It’s good enough that we exploit their labor through NAFTA and free trade, but if they come to our country, must we be rid of them?

Maybe the Statue of Liberty sits in New York Harbor, facing the Old World, because we only wanted Europeans.


Tom Nardi is a senior political science major from Philadelphia, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].