ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A nation of immigrants - that phrase used to be central to the mission statement of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that issues green cards and grants citizenship, until yesterday.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The change was announced in an email to staffers at the agency, which now defines its mission as administering the nation's lawful immigration system - pretty different language from the mission up until yesterday, which was to secure America's promise as a nation of immigrants. On the National Mall today, we asked tourists what a nation of immigrants means to them.
BRUCE RUBIN: It means a place where people feel welcome.
DEMETRIUS PRINCE: Most of our ancestors didn't originate on this continent.
YUXING XU: That it's willing to welcome people from different countries.
MARTIN STONE: A nation of immigrants means that somebody came here and allowed themselves to take over a land and then make laws to keep other people out.
MARTIN CAMACHO: I have family from Germany and Russia. I would not be here if they hadn't made unbelievably horrifying treks to get here.
MAL GJERQEKU: In a nation of immigrants, I see other cultures around me and other races and religions. And it's nice to see that.
KELLY: That is 12-year-old Mal Gjerqeku along with Bruce Rubin, Demetrius Prince, Yuxing Xu, Martin Stone and Martin Camacho, all visitors to the Capitol this morning. Well, for a historical perspective on the phrase and what its deletion from the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services mission statement means, we've reached Susan Martin. She's a Georgetown professor emerita and author of a very relevantly titled book, "A Nation Of Immigrants." Welcome to the program.
SUSAN MARTIN: Thank you.
KELLY: Start by telling us all where this phrase came from. When did it enter the lexicon?
MARTIN: The phrase in substance has been around for a long time. In the late-18th century, a man named Crevecoeur, writing about what it meant to be American, used that same concept in saying that the Americans melted into a new society that was free from the tyranny of Europe. And then...
KELLY: That's so interesting. Those two phrases came into being at the same time.
MARTIN: Pretty much so. This is the melting pot and the concept that we were a nation of immigrants. But I think in the modern times it's been more associated with John F. Kennedy, who wrote a book in the late 1950s that was called "A Nation Of Immigrants." And I sort of stole the title from him.
KELLY: (Laughter) I was interested to note as Congress was debating immigration just last week on the floor of the House and the Senate - by our count, Republicans and Democrats used the phrase eight times, so a phrase that's still used very often in American politics.
MARTIN: Yes, certainly. And - because it resonates with people. All of us except Native Americans had some immigrant ancestor.
KELLY: Is America a nation of immigrants? To pick up on your point there, what are the actual numbers?
MARTIN: Well, there are almost 44 million foreign-born persons counted in the last Census Bureau. It represents about 13 and a half percent of the American population.
KELLY: And where are they coming from? Break down that number for us.
MARTIN: Sure. The largest number in terms of the numbers already here are from Mexico. Interestingly, though, the largest number of new arrivals last year were from India.
KELLY: Well, what do you make of this change, of the deletion of the phrase nation of immigrants from the mission statement?
MARTIN: Well, I think it's unfortunate because I think deleting it really deletes a major concept with regard to what it means to be an American. And what it means is to have immigrant backgrounds of one sort or another - some recent, some far back.
KELLY: We reached out to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. They told us the decision to cut this phrase was in the interest of clarity. It was not directed by the White House. Is it possible to read too much into what maybe is just a bureaucracy tweaking some language?
MARTIN: Well, I think that may be a part of it because mission statements change all the time. But the deletion of that phrase, I think, had to take some thought. And if it weren't thought directed by the White House, it was thought that wanted the mission statement to be consistent with other things coming out of the White House. And so I don't think we can just take it as being a bureaucratic action.
KELLY: Does this change to the mission statement tell us about how people at this agency see their job, what they think they're there to do?
MARTIN: Yeah. Unfortunately, I think they're going to see their job as keeping people out and being so concerned that if anyone gets in who does something bad they'll be blamed, that they'll see themselves as enforcers of the law rather than a service agency that of course has to fight fraud and abuse, but also be very open to admitting people when they are eligible for that admission.
KELLY: That's Susan Martin, Georgetown professor emerita and author of the book "A Nation Of Immigrants." Thanks so much for taking the time.
MARTIN: You're welcome.
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