Is the United States a ‘Nation Of Immigrants’?

By Natasha Karunaratne

On February 22, 2018, National Public Radio reported that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is changing its mission statement to eliminate a phrase defining America as a “nation of immigrants.”

The phrase was first used as the title of John F. Kennedy’s famous speech to the Anti-Defamation League in 1963 and a book written by Kennedy in 1958, and finally published just a year after his death in 1964. During his speech, Kennedy explained what he meant by the phrase:

“It is a proud privilege to be a citizen of the great Republic, to realize we are the descendants of 40 million people who left other countries, other familiar scenes, to come here to the United States to build a new life, to make a new opportunity for themselves and their children. I think it is not a burden but a privilege to have the chance to share that great concept among all of our people, to make this really as it was for them a new world – a new world for us and indeed for all those who look to us….that is what this country has stood for for 200 years, and that’s what this country will continue to stand for.”

In the years after Kennedy’s speech, the USCIS mission statement included Kennedy’s sentiments. It stated:

“USCIS secures America’s promise as a nation of immigrants by providing accurate and useful information to our customers, granting immigration and citizenship benefits, promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship, and ensuring the integrity of our immigration system.”

As of February 22, 2018, the new mission statement reads:

“U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and promise by efficiently and fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.”

Consider talking about the implication of these changes with your students.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What does the phrase “a nation of immigrants” mean to you?
  2. While JFK’s speech is titled “A Nation of Immigrants” the speech itself never includes these words, but rather alludes to this same message. What language hints at JFK’s feelings towards immigrants? Through this speech, what does he see as the relationship between immigrants and the nation?
  3. Read through USCIS’s old and new mission statements again. What are the differences you see? What language was removed and added? Who or what did USCIS initially serve and who or what does the organization now serve?
  4. In the National Public Radio article, USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna and opponent to the Trump administration’s immigration policies, Eleanor Acer, discuss the greater implications of such a change as those made to the mission statement. According to them, what is the new statement focusing on as opposed to the previous mission statement?
  5. What might such changes as USCIS’s mission statement mean for the nation’s future and the future relationship between the nation and immigrants?