Julie Erfle: How do you define 'American'?

December 28, 2011

If someone asked you, “How do you define American?” what would you say?

Would you talk about nostalgic things like apple pie and baseball? Or would you refer to Webster’s dictionary for its literal meaning?

In the charged world of immigration politics, many are now arguing about what it means to be an American and who’s deserving of the title.

Do those brought here as small children with ties to community and family but absent of paperwork, the ones we call ‘DREAMers’ deserve this title?

What about our first-generation Americans, those now referred to as “anchor babies” because their parents are undocumented? Are they somehow less American than the rest of us?

Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas believes if we want to fix a broken immigration system, we need start by changing the conversation. We need to ask… why do people come to this country? And how do we define an American?

Myself as well as dozens of individuals – from Congressmen to comedians – are telling our personal immigration stories at DefineAmerican.com.

My immigration beliefs came into focus after the murder of my husband, a Phoenix police officer, at the hands of an undocumented felon. Many had assumed that as a white, middle-class woman from a conservative background I would join the call for enforcement-only policies and subscribe to a divisive ideology filled with fear and myths. But they were wrong.

America deserves better. My husband’s memory deserves solutions.

When I think about what it means to be an American, I think about my family’s immigration story. I think about my grandparents, German-Americans whose loyalty was questioned during World War II. Like Japanese-Americans, those of German descent were feared and persecuted.

But my grandparents never swayed in their dedication to this country, and like the Irish and Chinese-Americans before them, the fears of an invasion and an inability to assimilate were unfounded.

Today, we celebrate this diversity with St. Patrick’s Day parades, Oktoberfest and the Chinese New Year. We embrace those we once feared, and we honor the cultures and traditions that make this country exceptional and unique among nations.

And to me, that’s what being an American is really all about. It’s not about a particular race or even place of birth but rather a set of ideals… the ideals of a better life, of opportunity, of freedom.

If we wish to change the dialogue on immigration from discord to unity, we must start by remembering our common values.

These are the values that bind us, values stronger than those that divide us, and in my mind, the truest definition of what it means to be American.

-- Julie Erfle

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