Who Can Become American?

A Mini-Lesson on the 2018 Immigration Debate

Who can become an American?

This questions lies at the heart of a wide-ranging immigration debate kicking off in the United States Senate this week. As senators consider who will be eligible for visas, how to control the US border, and the fate of the DREAMers, competing concerns about inclusivity, diversity, the economy, security and the rule of law will make for a contentious debate.

The identity of the United States has long evolved in tandem with immigration policies and trends. Today, the story of America is being written by an increasingly diverse population. According to the Pew Research Center, by 2055 the United States will not have a single ethnic or racial majority group. This trend has led to a backlash from some Americans who argue for tighter restrictions over who may enter the country and who ought to be permitted to stay.

Today’s debates may seem especially combative, but they echo earlier moments in US history when Americans questioned who could become American.

Use the following resources and activities with your students to provide context for the ongoing debate over who can come to the United States, who can stay, and what it means to be American:

  • What does it mean to “Be American”?
    The lesson Many Voices, One National Identity, from the unit My Part of the Story invites students to create an identity chart for the national identity of the United States, and then to revise that chart based on information about the country’s changing dynamics as well as quotations about American identity from a variety of individuals.
  • How has immigration been debated in the past?
    The reading The Debate in Congress includes excerpts from a variety of speeches in Congress during the debate over the 1924 National Origins Act. That law ushered in an era of severe country by country immigration quotas. Many more immigrants from Northern European countries were allowed to enter the United States than those from Southern or Eastern Europe. Very few were allowed to enter from Asia and Africa. (The 1924 law was overturned by the 1965 Immigration Act, which largely established the immigration system some would like to overturn today). Read the arguments in “The Debate in Congress” carefully with your students, and as you monitor the current immigration debate, note the ways in which today’s debate is similar to the one nearly a century ago and the ways in which it is different.

Banner image credit: Flag of Faces. AP Image/Jon Elswick

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