Immigration reshapes what it means to be American

In its more than 240 years of existence, the United States has seen near-constant evolution of the average American.

According to U.S. Census data, when the country was founded in the late 18th century, the average citizen would probably have been described as white—having emigrated from western Europe—and rural, with over 90 percent of the population living outside urban areas.

However, since the first census in 1790, the U.S. has experienced major demographic changes and seen a steady increase of immigrants in urban populations as industrialization and technological progress impacted the economy. Even today, immigrants from a wide variety of countries continue to reshape the country’s ethnic makeup.

“What it means to be an American has evolved over time,” said Marc Rodriguez, associate professor of history at Portland State. “In the early republic, Catholics were suspect. For some time, immigrants from Ireland were suspect. Then immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe—Poles, Jews, Italians [and] Hungarians. Then Chinese were excluded along with Japanese and most Asians, and then Mexicans were increasingly seen as foreign or illegal. We now see that some [people] in the United States see all non-whites [or] non-English speakers as un-American, which is ironic since many of these people had immigrant ancestors who were seen to be less than American.”

“Take Los Angeles, Chicago, metropolitan New York, Dallas, and you have places that have increasingly diverse profiles as people of many different backgrounds work together, share spaces, and to a lesser degree live in the same neighborhoods,” Rodriguez continued. “These are very dynamic and diverse places.”

However, Rodriguez pointed out, the growing diversity in these regions doesn’t safeguard newcomers from social discrimination or anti-immigration policies, including voter ID laws—which some argue disproportionately affect minority populations—and crackdowns on undocumented immigrant populations as seen under the Obama and Trump administrations.

“Stereotypes have evolved of course,” he said. “Today there is so much anti-Muslim, anti-Latino—regardless of nation of origin or citizenship, but it seems most acutely focused on Mexicans—and anti–Middle Eastern rhetoric and a general discourse of defining people of color and immigrants out of American status that it seems that these insider-outsider dynamics are new. Sadly they are not.”