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What Does It Mean to Be an American?: On Immigration 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Troy Chavez
March 1, 2024

There are many laws and regulations to becoming an American citizen. You can be born here naturally, have immigrated from another country, sought education and work, etc. The reasons are myriad. But why do we value our American citizenship and who gets to decide who comes into this country? There are economic, cultural and political reasons, but when one goes through the process and is handed their papers, who are they now—as an American? What does it truly mean to be “American?”

W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in his seminal work, “Black Reconstruction in America (1860-1880),” a quote by Abraham Lincoln echoing the “American Dream” doctrine we’ve all heard before. “I want every man to have his chance—and I believe a black man is entitled to it—in which he can better his condition—when he may look forward and hope to be hired a laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward and finally to hire men to work for him. That is the true system.” I felt my bootstraps being lifted as his words rolled off the page. The Reconstruction would turn out to be a flash in the pan, but its hopeful rays of freedom burgeon from behind stone walls of exclusion. However, the sentiment that we can carve our own futures is an idea we believe but do not always live.  

Immigration is a contentious issue superseding any one nation. American immigration becomes a hot bed for diverse and fiery opinions because we squabble over an idea not all of us enjoy. Being an American is about enjoying freedom and democracy. Without these tenants, our republic would falter. Nevertheless, why does the immigration question feel so elusive? Is there anything to be done? Has the American dream turned into a nightmare? Or does it just need to be retold?

These questions may seem ambiguous. They are. But this country was built off an idea and ideas need to be debated, rehashed, reapproved, revaluated and restated. We can no longer discredit the argument that an elite few live the American dream while we awake with acrimonious rage towards a system we believe is failing us at every turn and pivot we make. Why is it we have a national motto imprinted on the “Great Seal,” E pluribus unum (From man, one), but feel we are not in this together and live on separate plains of American existences?

From 2010 to now, polling expresses an American downturn towards its once heralded benefit of being a citizen. Comparing September 2010 to January 2024, by age, and answering the question, “Does the American dream still hold true?” we find:

  • 18-29: 2010 (56 percent say yes) compared to 2024 (whereby 21 percent say yes).
  • 30-64: 2010 (48 percent say yes) compared to 2024 (whereby 24 percent say yes).
  • 65+: 2010 (53 percent say yes) compared to 2024 (whereby 41 percent say yes).

There is an age difference, but each category substantially diminished between the years 2010 and now. But what does this have to do with immigration policies? Simple, immigration is what the American dream is all about. And if we have trouble seeing an American dream machinated as citizens, then how will we view those we feel don’t belong in this country—‘taking’ it away from us?

Sentiment towards immigrants hasn’t always been copacetic. But generally, like the Romans before us, we effectively measured migrant influxes. “By diluting tribal loyalty and disarming the newcomers, the Romans strengthened their economy, increased tax revenue, and swelled the ranks of the army,” writes Cavan Concannon. However, long-story short, although they were admitted into the empire, Romans castigated the Goths as “barbarians” and ignited hordes of fighters who sacked Rome due to poor treatment and strong arming. 

The border crisis is one where solutions are present, but moods shift into two-forked directions. There have been more crossings and migrant interceptions in a “given month in over two decades,” wrote Nicole Narea of Vox. The numbers slowed in January but continually ebbed and flowed. There was also the issue of governors sending migrants to “blue” cities, like New York, Los Angeles, Denver, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and a few others. The crux of the issue lies in our asylum laws.

The court system handling asylum seekers is slow, ineffective, underfunded whereby most cases, on average, took two years to process (in 2023). Migrants, via domestic and international law, have a legal right to seek asylum. Yet numerous “migrants are forced to navigate the process themselves: Unlike in the criminal court system, there is no guarantee of legal representation, even though immigration law is notorious for being second in complexity only to the US tax code, and some migrants may not even speak English.”

With a Congress unwilling to deal with the brass tacks of immigration laws—and without providing the system with resources desperately needed—we will continue to see unmitigated surges of migrants. The American dream is on life support because we are not facing tough issues and allowing pettiness to seize the day. We must once again jigger the American dream so all can nestle in its warm embrace.  

Author: Troy Chavez, M.P.A. is a PhD candidate at Liberty University with a masters in public administration and works in government doing community relations. He can be reached at [email protected].

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One Response to What Does It Mean to Be an American?: On Immigration 

  1. Liz Reply

    March 2, 2024 at 10:53 am

    Great job, very informative

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