Washington, 12 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is "on the verge" of becoming the first country in history to include in its population representatives of every national, religious, and ethnic group in the world, a development that will force the U.S. to redefine itself as a country.
Speaking on Friday in Texas at the University of Houston's Center for Public Policy, U.S. Census Director Kenneth Prewitt said that the results of the 2000 census to be released next year will show that a nation traditionally consisting of immigrants is becoming even more diverse.
Indeed, he suggested the U.S. is well on its way to becoming "pan-world." Prewitt argued that coping with this new reality will be a major challenge to all Americans. And he suggested that if the U.S. pulls this off, it "will be the huge accomplishment of the 21st century."
Faced with massive immigration before at various stages of its national life, the United States has often been the site of debates over whether this influx of new people from abroad will fundamentally change or even harm the values and culture of the then-current population.
Despite such nativist fears, the U.S. in the past not only has assimilated immigrant groups by an insistence that they speak English and conform to the values of the larger society but also profoundly benefited from the arrival of these groups.
Indeed, precisely because a large proportion of Americans today are either immigrants themselves or descendants of immigrants, most of them have recognized immigration as a positive part of national life, as something that contributes to the country's culture and vitality.
But the convergence of three developments has caused some Americans to question that underlying national assumption, and Prewitt's comments last week suggest that such questioning is only likely to grow.
First, as Prewitt himself noted, immigration to the United States is far more diverse than every before. The new arrivals are coming not just from one region or one country but from virtually every region and every country.
For most of the last three centuries, immigrants to the United States have come primarily from one country at a time -- from England, from Germany, and from Ireland, for example -- and they have come from communities less obviously different than the population into which they arrived.
Because these earlier arrivals came in such distinct waves, the U.S. population was able to absorb them one at a time. And because these earlier waves came from such a relatively small group of countries, most native-born Americans did not view the new arrivals as being so different that they could not be absorbed.
Now, however, the latest wave of immigrants itself is far larger than earlier waves and far more diverse than any. Even with the best will in the world, that pattern puts new strains on ability of the American political system and culture to embrace them. And as Prewitt suggests, that good will may not always be present.
Second, many of the groups insist on maintaining far more of their own national cultures and languages than did earlier immigrant populations.
To a remarkable extent, historians and demographers have agreed, most earlier waves of immigration to the United States consisted of people who overwhelmingly wanted to "become Americans" -- a process they and the larger society agreed included speaking English and sharing in American traditions.
Even as each new wave modified what those traditions were, immigrants largely continued to share in a more or less common understanding of just what being an American meant.
Now, however, the extraordinary diversity of the immigrant population itself has combined with a new belief by many Americans in the desirability of maintaining cultural distinctions to break down that pattern.
Many of the new groups insist on maintaining their distinctiveness and even demand that the broader society recognize their right to do so. And many in the broader society, for a variety of reasons, are prepared not only to acknowledge such demands as legitimate but to help in their realization.
As a result, a smaller fraction of the new immigrants are learning English and otherwise becoming what the native born define as "American" than was the case only a generation or two ago. And that is creating a situation which some view as a threat to the fabric of the nation.
And third, the rise of electronic media has both focused the attention of broader American society to the issues of immigration and allowed immigrant groups to retain far closer ties to their home societies than was ever possible in the past.
On the one hand, television has made people born in the United States far more aware of the presence of new immigrant groups, particularly if they come from regions of the world which produced few immigrants in the past and if they insist on maintaining more of their own national culture.
A hundred years ago, many Americans had little direct contact with immigrants beyond their own neighborhood. Now, they are brought into contact with all groups via television.
As Prewitt suggests, refashioning what it means to be an American and hence what America means to its own citizens and the world is not going to be easy. Indeed, it is likely to become one of the central political issues in the U.S. in the years ahead with some people welcoming these changes and others remaining very much opposed.