American Like Me

Deborah Schildkraut’s survey found that native and foreign-born U.S. residents have more commonalities than differences

Deborah Schildkraut

In this election year, immigrants—legal and otherwise—are being demonized by some politicians and pundits. But those negative judgments are out of step with the views held by most Americans.

In fact, both immigrants and those born in this country share the same values and agree on what it means to be an American, writes Deborah Schildkraut, an associate professor of political science, in her latest book, Americanism in the Twenty-First Century: Public Opinion in the Age of Immigration (Cambridge University Press).

Schildkraut has researched Americans’ attitudes toward immigrants, and the opinions of immigrants themselves, over the past 12 years in two books and numerous articles and studies.

Her latest book contradicts one often-heard argument that growing cultural diversity is weakening the American identity and the values that shaped the country.

Schildkraut found that both foreign- and native-born Americans share a national identity defined by identical values: hard work, independence, freedom, participating to make democracy work, free speech and the promise of fulfilling the American dream of success and prosperity.

And both groups share a strong sense of pride about being American. Even immigrants who said they identified most strongly with their place of birth held an undiminished belief in shared American values and an obligation to this country, according to Schildkraut.

“There are a lot of misperceptions out there, and misperceptions are really hard to break,” Schildkraut says.

Strengthening American Identity

The findings are based on her 144-question telephone survey of 2,800 people across the country and all demographics conducted in 2004. Called the “21st-Century Americanism Survey,” Schildkraut says it is the first to intentionally include ethnic minorities from many backgrounds, the first to ask questions on multiple topics outside of immigration and the largest set of data collected on what it means to be an American. Schildkraut finished her analysis of the data in 2010.

“This remains the most current and comprehensive data we have on attitudes about American identity, and I would expect that recent events would only serve to strengthen these findings on perceptions, identity and politics in America today,” she says.

Despite Schildkraut’s findings of significant commonalities in how the native and foreign born define American identity, a vocal minority remains critical of immigrants and dominates conversation around the issue. “Even though a strong anti-immigrant sentiment does exist in today’s pubic dialogue, it is not the opinion of the majority of Americans,” she says. “It just feels that way because immigration critics are the most organized, and they have people in positions of political power who agree with them to help further their agendas.”

There are also policy consequences of having a vocal group critical of the immigrant population, she says, “because these misperceptions lead to bad policy.” She points to the fact that Arizona in 2010, quickly followed by Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Indiana in 2011, passed the strictest immigration laws in the country’s history. But public policy sometimes takes a different tack: California’s DREAM Act, passed in 2011, allows children of illegal immigrants who meet in-state tuition requirements for state college to have access to private financial aid.

“We have seen grand efforts and comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level as well as more targeted policies such as stricter border enforcement and increased deportations. On top of all of that, the role of non-whites as voters continues to grow, with both the election of the first Black president and the growing segment of the electorate that is Latino,” Schildkraut says. “Because of all of these factors, the importance of how ethnic and national identities might shape the relationships people have with each other and with the political process has only come into starker relief.”

Gail Bambrick can be reached at

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