Immigrants are 100% American

Why immigrants are 100% American

betty ming liu Inspiration 8 Comments

Americans are so confused about what it means to be an immigrant. Really, I can’t take it anymore. That’s why I’m here to say that immigrants are 100% American! We must talk about this — because even immigrants are unsure of their true identity.

The other day, I was in a store and got into a random chat with two customers and a store employee. What happened next made me realize why conversations about being American are so important.

We were such an international group, said one of the customers with a smile. She was from Portugal. The other customer immigrated from Jamaica. My parents were from China and Vietnam. The store employee’s parents came from the Dominican Republic.

The employee added that he was born here, making him first-generation American. This is when I went into high-alert, and started listening very, very carefully.

The woman from Portugal jumped in. Her kids were born here. They’re first-generation American, too, she said proudly.

Okay. By this time, I had enough. They seemed clueless of their power.

“I’m also born here,” I added pleasantly, “and that makes me SECOND GENERATION — SECOND.”

For an awkward moment, everyone looked at me. They didn’t understand. Was I speaking a foreign language?

Immigrants are 100% American

Why immigrants are 100% American

Slowly, I took them through the logic.

I explained that I used to write about immigrants for The New York Daily News. As a journalist, I discovered the correct terminology from researchers, community leaders, government experts, lawyers and scholars — people with power and knowledge on immigrant issues.

My new friends listened doubtfully. So I tried another angle.

“If you make the American-born kids the first generation, then what are the immigrants?” I asked. “Are they zeroes? Are you zeroes, the zero generation?”

The words started sinking in. It was like watching a movie scene where people realized a beautiful, impossible truth. I could imagine their brains sifting through lies and memories.

The woman from Portugal said she had American citizenship. But someone recently told her, “You’re not ‘real’ American. You’ll never be ‘real’ American because you’re not from here.” She said it made her feel so bad.

The difference between 1st- and 2nd generation

Sometimes, we have to repeat ourselves, repeat ourselves, repeat ourselves.

“People who say you’re not American are making you the outsider,” I said. “They want you to keep you powerless.”

But first generation immigrants and their American-born children are NOT outsiders. “You have roots in this country, deep roots,” I told her. “Your roots go down TWO generations. Two. Whole. Generations!”

The Portuguese American mom suddenly flashed a huge smile. She said she never thought of it like that. “You just changed my life!” she said.

The American-born son of Dominican immigrants said he felt happy to learn something new about himself. Along with the American from Jamaica, we all  smiled our American smiles. We chatted some more. Then, we went our separate ways, finally sure of why immigrants are 100% American.

Afterwards, I kept thinking about our conversation. America’s immigrants wake up every morning to such crap and abuse. They are constantly coping with the discrimination of “otherness.”

This is where the anti-immigrant crowd brings up the need to keep out criminal immigrants. Well you know what’s criminal? Our lack of clear definitions. What does it mean to be American, anyway?

The dictionary offers a broad answer. “American” means someone born or native to this country. “American” also means living in America and/or having characteristics of this country — this is why immigrants are 100% American.

Useful info: more definitions 

I just made a nice, clear one-page PDF of definitions for my students. If you’d like, you can also have a copy of my latest handout, “Defining U.S. Immigrants, Diversity & Inclusion.”

The handout might be useful to writers or for your classes, employees and friends. Unlike many immigration vocabulary lists, this one is user-friendly because I’ve “translated” definitions into every-day English.

To get the PDF, leave me your email and hit the “subscribe” button in the sidebar on the right side of your computer screen. Mobile readers, keep scrolling down until you see the button for subscribing to my weekly newsletter.

Meantime, here is the PDF’s text:

Defining U.S. Immigrants, Diversity & Inclusion

How do we define “American”? Americans are a diverse people of different backgrounds and cultures. But we need more than diversity. We need inclusion, which means including everybody.

Defining our status as Americans:

  • 1st generation American = immigrants who might or might not be U.S. citizens
  • 2nd generation American = American-born children of immigrants (all U.S. citizens)
  • 1.5ers (pronounced: “one point fivers”) = 1st gen kids who grew up in the U.S.
  • Undocumented = a respectful way to say that an immigrant lacks legal papers
  • Illegal immigrant or illegal alien = language which shows anti-immigrant bias
  • Visa holder = foreign visitor who can legally stay in U.S. for a limited time period
  • Naturalized = immigrant with the legal paperwork to prove U.S. citizenship
  • Green card holder = immigrant with legal right to stay and work forever in U.S. (also known as a permanent resident)

How we got here:

  • Immigrant = you left your home country and settled permanently in the U.S.
  • Refugee = you escaped war, natural disaster or persecution in home country
  • Migrant = you’re a worker who moves to different places, doing seasonal jobs
  • Indigenous = you were always here, since forever, making you a native
  • Slave = you are forced to obey a master who claims you as legal property
  • Indentured worker or slave = you made an agreement to obey a master
  • Expatriate or expat = you live outside your home country for a while or long time
  • Emigrant = left home country to live permanently in the U.S. (a confusing term that is rarely used)
  • Copyright 2017 All rights reserved. Get more great info at

You, and being immigrant and/or American

The whole topic of 1st gen/2nd gen is one of my pet peeves. It has bothered me for years. I used to feel a little silly writing about it. But this was only because I doubted myself.

No more. Now, I realize the issue of rootedness and otherness in America haunts us to our country’s core. Unity begins with understanding who we are.

And what about you? Would love to get your experiences with the words “immigrant” and “American.”


Comments 8

  1. Great column, Betty. My father’s family immigrated here from Jamaica. He was a naturalized citizen when I was born. My mom was born here, and so was her mom, but my maternal great-grandmother came to the U.S. from Ireland. My maternal great-grandfather was born in South Carolina, most likely as a slave, and migrated North as a very young man, probably around 1880 or earlier. I was born in NYC, and have always felt like a long-time American, with roots in Jamaica, Africa and a bit of Europe!

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      Thanks, Leslie! What a rich life — no wonder you’re such a writer. Just stating the basic facts about your family creates a profound, nuanced word picture. Wow. You’ve got so much material to work with. Thank you for sharing. xo

  2. I’m reminded of Great Aunt Augusta, who immigrated to the old German Grand Duchy of Graustark-By-Rhine (which isn’t anywhere near the Rhine, BTW, but they thought it sounded nice) It is a very small country and is often mistaken, when looking at a map, for a seed the fell from the morning bagel. Augusta was courted by the Grand Duke for her money. She possessed a fortune of about $156, some trolly tokens and a “twofer” drinks ticket from Mack’s Saloon in Brooklyn. The national economy of Graustark By Rhine was based on stealing goats, so Augusta was really in the 1%, as it were. Sadly, money, as you know, doesn’t buy happiness. Augusta was never able to reconcile to the various local customs such as dancing with goats, the annual goat festival and always having at least one goat at table during formal dinners. Call her ethnocentric if you will but it was really the whole goat thing that caused her distress. In the end, she returned to the U.S., a sadder but wiser woman. Immigration sometimes just doesn’t work.

  3. Hi Betty,

    This is an interesting topic, with some nuance and shades of grey. Especially if you are talking about children who immigrate with their parents. And what about the middle-class Chinese parents who come here as tourists for the purpose of having their child born in the U.S. to gain citizenship, even when they will grow up in China for their strong foundational education, and then be eligible (as U.S. citizens) to go to any American university? They may be “First Generation” by legal definition, but can you call them 100% American if they themselves don’t feel that way?

    I agree with you that immigrants *can* be 100% American, but that depends on their own feelings and circumstances, rather than any labels applied to them by others. There are some immigrants who have very patriotic feelings towards the U.S. and are keen to volunteer to serve in the U.S. military. Besides military service, there are many other ways to contribute to this country and feel 100% American. But it’s up to them. OTOH, there are some immigrants who may be here on work visas or green cards, and they may not have positive feelings or loyalty towards the U.S.; they may be here just for making money. So it all depends. Some less than enthusiastic immigrants maybe wouldn’t want you to call them “100% Americans.”

    As for the term “First or Second Generation American,” you may be getting too hung up on the “American” part, when this term is used to identify which “Generation” (offspring) that someone is. First Generation simply means: Being the first *generation* to be born in Any given country– first to be generated in a country — by the immigrants. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s a term for census-takers and other statisticians like sociologists who may want to study those who were born here vs immigrants born elsewhere. There’s no way that this term can be an indicator of how “American” anyone is.

    To use an extreme example, you probably wouldn’t want to call those people who immigrated to the U.S. aged 50-70 (perhaps arriving with their children and grandchildren) as First Generation, would you? They can be as American as anyone in terms of loyalty and sentiment, but the immigrants themselves might feel silly to self-identify as being generated here as “First Generation” U.S. citizens.

    And what about those kids who were brought over here by their parents at a very young age, and this is the only country that they ever known? They may not have been born here, but i’m sure that you’d agree that it was close enough to be considered First Generation. I’d say that if you started school here, then you should be counted as First Generation. Maybe not as definitive as Birth for the statisticians, but who cares– it’s just a label, right? If you want to be more nuanced about it, you could draw the line at about 5,6, or 7, for those who arrive here as First Generation. If a 7 or 8 year-old immigrates over here with some education and life experiences in their Old Country, then why not identify them as immigrant Americans (and their children as First to be generated from the immigrants)? I don’t see that as a knock at them at all. They are still 100% Americans, even if not “First Generation” — the first generation in their family to be born here. Also, you could be First Generation on your Mom’s side, but Third Generation on your father’s side. But why so much attention to these generational numbers? Why let yourself get worked-up and furious over those want to look down one someone else over such a superficial thing? Changing the label from Immigrant to “First-Generation” probably isn’t going to change anyone’s mind as to how they feel about immigrants in any case, and may even give the appearance of trying to hard. I say be proud of your immigrant or First Generation status!

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      Dan, your reaction has me wondering about your own immigration experience. People who are first- and second-generation tend to care a lot about how we’re identified. As for immigrating to the U.S. as an older immigrant, we both agree that “first generation” is defined as the person who lands here from another country. To change that definition just because a person is middle-aged or older feels like age discrimination to me!

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    Sandy, there’s all sorts of complicated in-group, out-group dynamics in every culture. So much of it is based on people feeling threatened or people misunderstanding each other. I’m sure Filipinos are just one among many groups that have this issue. I know it exists among the Chinese — and tons of people of Chinese heritage live in Hawaii. But thanks for sharing how you feel about it!

  5. Very interesting. Another angle is that America is a continent not just the US. So being American can mean a lot more than being a US citizen

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