Immigrants Are Far More Patriotic Than the Right Fears or the Left Hopes

And it's up to American institutions to ensure that their children don't sour on the country.

Over the past years, parts of the left have come to love immigrants, and parts of the right have come to fear them. Ironically, one key reason for this is that both share the same faulty assumption: that immigrants are less likely to love the country than other Americans.

Fearmongering about the ways in which immigrants will transform America is a hallmark of the conservative movement in the age of Donald Trump. Ann Coulter, the far-right provocateur, recently warned that “legal immigration is going to destroy this country.” The more moderate Hudson Institute has claimed that the country’s “patriotic assimilation system is broken.” Even Amy Wax, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has argued for a “cultural distance nationalism” which effectively leads to the conclusion that “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer non-whites.”

Despite their righteous defense of immigrants, many leftists share a remarkably similar view: they too assume that most immigrants are antagonistic to American culture. Trying to appeal to a group of immigrants in Tennessee during his abortive run for the presidency, for example, Beto O’Rourke told them that “this country was founded on white supremacy. And every single institution and structure that we have in this country still reflects the legacy of slavery and segregation and Jim Crow.” Like O’Rourke, many left-wing activists simply assume that immigrants will be sympathetic to a worldview that describes America as a “failed social experiment.”

But this runs directly counter to my experiences growing up in an immigrant community in the American South. Both my parents were born in Pakistan and moved here for college. Most of my friends also had recent immigrant roots and spoke Hindi or Spanish at home. And yet, far from teaching me to see America as a bastion of racism or discrimination, my parents consistently communicated the opposite message: “America is one of the most open and friendly countries in the world. We are incredibly lucky to be here.”

This chasm between the growing consensus about immigrants and my own immigrant experience is hardly an aberration. Immigrants are far more patriotic and far more deeply invested in “American” values such as reverence for our founding institutions, than either side of the political spectrum believes.

As the Cato Institute showed in a 2019 study, for example, three out of four naturalized citizens say that they are “very proud” of being American; among natural-born citizens, the figure is notably lower. Conversely, 69 percent of native-born Americans say that they are “ashamed” of some aspects of America; among immigrants, just 39 percent agree.

Immigrants also have greater trust in American institutions, with a higher percentage expressing confidence in Congress, the presidency and the Supreme Court. They are even more likely to believe that the country should be a model for the rest of the world: Only 29 percent of natives believe that “the world would be better if people from other countries were more like Americans.” Among immigrants, 39 percent do.

And while conservatives like Wax and Coulter argue that immigrants are undermining America’s traditional values, there is a lot of reason to think that they’re actually reinforcing them. Children of immigrants are, for example, more likely to grow up in two-parent households. And as Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan have shown, “children of immigrants have higher rates of upward mobility than their U.S.-born peers.”

When I was five years old, my favorite movie was Top Gun. One day, I hoped, I too would, like Tom Cruise, become a fighter pilot serving in the United States Air Force.

The older I got, the more cynical the view I took of America. By the time I was seventeen, I had basically turned into a budding Will Hunting, reading my fair share of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, and holding forth at great length about America’s past and present flaws.

This is not atypical: As they struggle to define themselves, second generation immigrants are often torn between the values of their parents and the values of the culture in which they grow up. African immigrants in Australia, for example, have a very positive view of their adopted country; but they are having difficulty passing that attitude down to their more critical children. Meanwhile, back in the United States, first-generation Muslim immigrants are more than twice as likely to say that Americans treat them in a friendly manner than do those Muslims who were born here.

But though the children of immigrants often take a more critical attitude towards America than their parents, this is in part because they have imbibed the attitudes of their native-born peers. The friends and writers who soured me on my own country when I was a teenager, for example, had many generations of American ancestors. 

In my case, the special dislike I reserved for America began to wane as I grew older. The more I traveled abroad, the more I came to understand that other countries also have deep—indeed, in many cases, much deeper—shortcomings. By the time I graduated college, I realized that I had taken the freedoms and opportunities I enjoyed for granted.

But though my own story has had a happy (or at least a patriotic) end, it also illustrates a larger question: Will the descendants of immigrants remain as proud to be American as their parents—or will they, ironically, come to sour on the country as they assimilate into its culture?

It certainly is possible that America’s immigrants will adopt the same cultural values as those on the American left who think that our country is irredeemably flawed. Oikophobia, the dislike of one’s own culture or compatriots, is contagious.

But that would be our fault, not that of America’s immigrants. And so it’s on us to build a culture that welcomes constructive criticism without eroding civic pride.

Immigrants are among America’s hardest working and most patriotic people. They and their children are predisposed to love this country despite its flaws. It is only if those “older” Americans who, for now, dominate the country’s institutions teach them that a leaky boat needs to be sunk, rather than fixed, that they could give up on the American experiment.

In the interest of both immigrants and the country they love so dearly, we must not let that happen.

Zaid Jilani is a freelance journalist who has worked for the Center for American Progress, the University of California-Berkeley, and The Intercept. He hosts the YouTube show The BackChannel.