Who Gets to Be American?
By Emira Habiby Browne, Founder & CEO
The Center for the Integration and Advancement of New Americans, Inc. (CIANA)
New York City is wrapping up the ninth annual celebration of Immigrant Heritage Week, which began on April 17 with the announcement of the American Dreamer Awards at Gracie Mansion. Over the past week, New Yorkers have come together to enjoy international cuisine, watch films about the immigrant experience, and celebrate the wonderful diversity created by four centuries of immigration.
But at CIANA, every week is Immigrant Heritage Week. We’re always working to guide new immigrants – especially those from the highly traditional societies of the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia – to successful integration into the socioeconomic and civic life of New York City and the United States. Integration is the key word – our message to clients is that they can take the best of both worlds, becoming successful new Americans while maintaining whatever they love most about their heritage.
The Worldwide Debate on Multiculturalism
An Op-Ed article in The New York Times on April 11 had the provocative title, “Who Gets to Be French?” The author, Karl E. Meyer, contrasted “opposing approaches of what it means to be French – one rooted in an uncompromising ideal of assimilation, the other grounded in the messy realities of multiculturalism.” He devoted most of his article to describing the striking differences between “the exclusionary attitude prevailing in metropolitan Paris,” where being French tends to mean giving up any other identity, and “the more tolerant worldview epitomized by the port city of Marseille.”
The very fact that New Yorkers celebrate Immigrant Heritage Week demonstrates that we embrace “messy” multiculturalism rather than insisting that immigrants conform to a stereotypical idea of who is a “real American.” And Immigrant Heritage Week reminds us not just that New York has a long history of diversity, beginning with 17th century New Amsterdam, but also that the United States has been built on multiculturalism and diversity.
Yet, even here in New York, we hear echoes – sometimes rising to a roar – of the national and worldwide debate on the merits and drawbacks of multiculturalism. Especially in the aftermath of 9/11, the United States, like many European countries, is struggling with two opposing views of immigrants – one that sees them as making valuable contributions to our economy and culture, and the other as a threat to our security and way of life.
Sharing Post-9/11 Reflections in Germany and Italy
Over the past several years, I’ve been privileged to visit Europe several times at the invitation of the U.S. State Department, to speak to German, Italian, Polish, and Spanish audiences about multiculturalism and the integration of immigrants in the U.S., especially in New York. In April, September, and October of 2011, I participated in a variety of public programs in several German and Italian cities to share my experiences at CIANA, as well as my reflections on how 9/11 changed attitudes and policies in the U.S.
One of my key messages for European audiences was that, 10 years after 9/11, we needed to search for long-term measures to prevent the marginalization and isolation of immigrants and the problems of disenfranchisement and underclass status. Immigration policies that focus on security and risk management only, and government programs and public/private partnerships that respond to emergency situations rather than addressing the advancement and integration of new immigrants into mainstream society, will only weaken our security in the long run.
All too often, the debate on immigration is framed as whether “they” (the immigrants) should become like “us” (the host society), or if it is better to live separate lives. But both perfect assimilation and complete separation are unrealistic and simply don’t work. Integration, however, is the path that lies between assimilation and coexistence –a two-way street where immigrants accept the norms of the host country without relinquishing their own identities, and the majority culture values the diversity and rich culture that newcomers bring to the host society.
A Passion for Integration and Advancement
CIANA is focused on going beyond the band-aid solutions that help immigrants survive, to the hard job of designing and implementing a wide range of services that help new Americans thrive. Our conviction is that success starts now; that integration needs to begin immediately upon entry into the country, and that the process of advancement begins with the first generation. We are passionate about the twin concepts of integration and advancement because we believe that they will lead to a stronger economy and a more secure, harmonious society, and an even richer cultural diversity. Our vision is that when New York City celebrates the 25th annual Immigrant Heritage Week, today’s debate on multiculturalism will already seem like an oddity of history.
“Who gets to be American?” is even more complex and provocative than “Who gets to be French?” But my message for Immigration Heritage Week is that American identity is not exclusive of any other cultural identity – and that every new American helps to expand the virtually limitless definition of what it means to be “American.”