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Immigration and Identity

Immigration and Identity

Who are you? What do you do? Where are you from?

These are all questions of identity. How you answer these questions is the bedrock for how you see yourself, how you make decisions, and ultimately how you interact with the world.

I’m a daughter. I’m a mother. I work in a non-profit. I’m from a rural community. I’m American.

In my circles, in my community, those are acceptable answers to the questions of identity. But, what if they weren’t? What if that last one, “I’m American”, caused suspicion?

If you are an immigrant reading this, you probably already knew where I was going in my line of thinking. If you have never lived in another country, the idea that identity and immigration belong in the same conversation (and can’t really be separated) might be new to you.

I propose that any conversation about immigration cannot be divorced from an understanding that immigrants are people and that where they are from is as much a part of their identity as their family name, their job, or their hair color.

Why is that important? Good question. Perhaps you don’t think it is. But I do. I do because I believe in the power of identity. Who am I? is the most profound question someone can ask themselves, and how they choose to answer it (or how it is answered for them) is fundamental to how they behave and the choices they make.

Let me give you an example. I grew up in very small community with a very unusual last name. There was NO denying who I was and what that meant: it was modeled to me early on how we behaved in our family. Funny things (such as we were not a “Ford Family”) to more important things (we are a family who fulfills our commitments, no matter what).

As Americans, we have similar narratives. As Americans we value democracy. We don’t drink high-tea. Some of the narratives are serious, others are less so. Depending on the ideologies with which you were raised, there will be differences, but being American is a core part of our identity.

This is part of why immigration is such a tricky topic in America. It is tricky because of the different ideologies, family backgrounds, and experiences that we all have had as an immigrant nation. The conversation is riddled with questions of national security, economics philosophies, and simple ideals. It is unlikely that the complicated nature of the topic is going to go away anytime soon.

And thus, I propose that every now and then we pause our opinions and conversations on immigration and consider the underlying topic of identity. How do immigrants answer the question, that critical question, Who I am?

To be frank, most immigrants I know struggle with this question at one time or another. For at least some time, they feel a split identity. Part American, part the nationality of their birth. Some feel shame that they are not fully American. Some feel a surge of pride in their home country…something akin to “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” A friend of mine recently applied for American citizenship. The emotions my friend has experienced have been eye-opening for me. My friend has expressed frustration that their home country isn’t meeting the potential they know it has, causing my friend to make the decision to pledge allegiance to another nation. At the same time, when a national holiday rolled around, my friend said, “This is my last time to celebrate this holiday as a citizen.” (Forgive the lack of specificity… these are incredibly personal feelings that my friend has granted me permission to share.)

So, what of it, you ask? Well, the fascinating thing about identity is that it can be influenced and molded throughout our lifetime. We are often pruning our identities as we continually ask ourselves the question Who am I?  This happens as we experience changes and new environments. I no longer see myself as a country girl, that shoe doesn’t fit anymore. I do still follow through on commitments (but have learned how to say no more often).

The beautiful thing about the changing of identity over time is that we have the power to positively influence how other people see themselves. We also have the opportunity to befriend immigrants among us and provide a positive narrative for them as well. They can be encouraged to be proud of where they are from, while at the same time be encouraged to take on ideals and identities of being American. And, in all cases, we can value each individual as they grow through the difficult process of answering the question Who am I?

Now I’m going to go drive my Chevy home…I just can’t bring myself to drive a Ford.

This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Jennifer is originally from rural Nebraska. She has nearly 20 years of experience working cross-culturally in the areas of education and non-profit management. Now a wife and mother of two, Jennifer loves seeing the world through the eyes of her children. She describes herself as a person who loves to learn, is passionate about the world around her, believes in absolute truth and believes in the goodness of humanity.

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