Common ground on who's American

Amid a heated immigration debate, a survey finds behavior is more important than background.

"What does it mean to be an American?"

"Opportunity," says Rosita Romero, a second-generation émigré from El Salvador, lunching at Twain's Restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles.

"E Pluribus Hassle - out of many people, one bigger and bigger problem," says Brent Uggam, a truck driver from Kansas City, Mo.

When a Purdue University professor asked that question of 1,500 adult US citizens nationwide, he was surprised by the response.

Despite heated debate over illegal immigration, there is more uniting the country on the issue of national identity than dividing it, says Jeremy Straughn, the sociology professor who oversaw the telephone survey.

"The reason there is a perception that the country is so divided has more to do with the structure of our political system and the way the two-party system works than in the underlying core beliefs we found," he says.

For example, there is a wider acceptance of multiculturalism than in the 1920s.

"This conclusion is very reinforcing of a changed attitude toward multiculturalism now being accepted in the US as opposed to the biases of extreme racial purity of Northern European stock that characterized immigration at the turn of the [20th] century," says Harry Pachon, director of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, which studies policies affecting the Latino community.

The survey also finds that behavior is more important than one's background in defining who is an American.

"In general, voluntary behaviors are considered more important than qualities that are beyond an individual's control," the survey concludes. "Like birth or lifetime residence in the US or being of European descent."

Some of those behaviors may seem obvious. Ninety-four percent say that having US citizenship makes someone "truly American." Also more than 9 out of 10 people report that speaking English well and a willingness to pledge allegiance to the flag are important in defining someone as truly American. Seventy-six percent said that having an education and training matters.

But those answers do not include what has been central in the past. For example, 70 percent said it was not important that one's ancestors came mostly from Europe to be considered American, while 30 percent said it was.

The 120 survey questions ranged from the symbolic, including displaying flags and singing anthems, to the specific, such as voting and paying taxes.

In survey responses, Dr. Straughn says he found support for the concept that America is different from other nations, which are defined by common language, homogenous people, or geography. By contrast, Americans generally see the US as defined by ideas and philosophies, which can change over time.

Yet the public was split over some issues, including religion. The fact that 39 percent strongly agree that being a Christian makes a person more American while 32 percent strongly disagree leads Straughn to conclude that religious divisions have become more apparent in recent decades.

Divisions also came through on attitudes toward immigration, which were related to the level of a person's education.

"The more educated a person is, the more open and less restrictive they are to matters of immigration," says Straughn. "The less educated you are, the more restrictive you tend to be ... the more likely you are to say that people who want to become citizens should have to meet high thresholds on language ability and training."

Nonetheless, a solid majority, 86 percent, believes immigration improves America with new ideas from different cultures and roughly the same percentage say groups should adapt to the larger US community.

"Taking stock of the factors people think are crucial to being an American might be instructive if only to offer a glimpse of the cultural values that Americans ascribe to their culture," says Kareem Crayton, assistant professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California. "The report represents the public's tension between celebrating cultural diversity and encouraging immigrant groups to 'blend in.' One person's display of cultural pride is another person's refusal to culturally assimilate."

In general, however, Straughn says, respondents often equated their own qualities - being Christian, living in the US, serving in the military - as being more American.

"These findings, of a small sample, raise some interesting issues that echo through recent American history," says Richard Greenwald, a cultural historian at Drew University in New Jersey. "We are more open and tolerant than we were in previous decades. The category of 'American' is fluid. It is revealed rather then defined. And it tells us as much about ourselves - our values and our fears - as it does about who is an American."

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