The goal of the Smithsonian Institution’s Second Opinion website is to be a catalyst for a national conversation on critical issues facing the nation.
To that end, we invite you to host your own conversation in your community, and share the results with us at SecondOpinionReact@si.edu. We’ll post selected responses from individuals and groups as part of the Vox Populi area of the website.
To host a conversation is simple:
• Invite a group of friends, acquaintances and others who have a variety of differing opinions about the issue being discussed.
• Set aside 90 minutes or so for discussion
• Use the questions below (or download the PDF) and use them to guide your conversation
• Have as a goal not for any one person to “win” a debate, but rather that each point of view is understood by the others, even if they disagree with that point of view.
• Capture your ideas, conversation, and common ground in writing, audio, or video
• Reach out to us at SecondOpinionReact@si.edu and share your experience. We’ll post selected conversations here.
Thanks so much for your participation in this Second Opinion conversation!
The overall theme we are exploring in this edition of Second Opinion is:
One of the defining metaphors of the United States has been that our country is a “melting pot” of immigrants from around the globe. But this powerful ideal also coexists alongside an anti-immigration sentiment that has persisted throughout our nation’s history.
Many new populations have come to America over the centuries: Some came in pursuit of a more prosperous life; some came in search of protection from religious, ethnic, or political persecution. Others were brought across the Atlantic against their will. And some Americans’ ancestors were here long before the first Europeans arrived.
In spite of these differences in origin, we all grapple with the concept of what being a “nation of immigrants” entails, as each incoming community has contributed its respective heritage and culture to American society. And we celebrate that diversity today in our foods, our arts, our sciences, our entrepreneurship, our politics, and our faiths. But we also cherish the notion of a shared American identity that transcends our individual differences.
Sometime these two opposing traits can be a source of friction -- but they are also the core of America’s great strength.
Let’s discuss the role that immigrants play in 21st century America: How do our country’s immigrants contribute to the nation as a whole today? What may be different in these times versus the past? What is gained and what is lost when immigrants come to America and merge their heritage with American culture?
Ultimately, we are grappling with the question “What does it means to be an American in the 21st Century”?
1. Is there something exceptional about the United States that makes it such a beacon for immigrants?
2. What does history tell us about how immigrants have integrated themselves into American culture? What were the concerns about immigration at the end of the World War II? At the turn of the century in the early 1900s? How has that changed, or not changed?
3. Benefit or burden: How should the impact of immigration be weighed when trying to understand American history?
4. Only a quarter of Americans favor increased immigration levels, but leaders in both political parties support higher levels of legal immigration. Why is this?
5. Barack Obama famously declared that “there is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America”. What does it mean to be “one America”?
1. Americans who feel economically vulnerable are more likely to see immigrants as an economic threat. Are they justified in feeling this way?
2. How do immigrant workers, including entrepreneurs, fuel America’s growth, innovation and the economy?
3. In 2013, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the economic effects of legislation to give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship and increase legal immigration. It found that in 20 years, per-capita GDP would be 0.2 percent higher thanks to the bill. Who thrives in this economy? Who suffers?
4. What are the benefits and costs of the H1-B visa program? Do the benefits H1-B visas for American businesses outweigh the negative consequences?
5. Economic betterment is only one of many reasons immigrants come to the United States. Do immigrants take away jobs from those already living in America?
6. In 2006, Paul Krugman wrote that the United States was experiencing “large increases in the number of low-skill workers relative to other inputs into production, so it’s inevitable that this means a fall in wages.” How do you think the influx of immigrants affects wages for American workers?
7. Do immigrants disproportionately add strain to America’s welfare state services?
8. More than a quarter of America’s recent immigrants lack a high-school diploma or its equivalent. How does the government and corporate world pit the native-born poor and the immigrant poor against each other? What can be done to bridge that divide?
1. Are illegal immigrants more prone to commit crimes? Multiple studies have concluded that immigrants are less likely to commit crime than native-born U.S. citizens are. However, critics say that these studies typically combine the crime rates of both legal and illegal immigrants.
2. Does a fear of deportation among immigrant communities affect their willingness to work with law enforcement agencies on rooting out “bad apples”? What can law enforcement do to maintain positive relationships with immigrant communities while also upholding the laws currently on the books?
3. Crimes committed by undocumented immigrants often make national headlines, creating concerns that crime is higher in immigrant communities, when multiple studies have shown the opposite is the case. What role does the media have in fomenting these stereotypes, and what can immigrant communities themselves do to counter them?
4. Studies by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam suggest that greater diversity not only reduces trust and cooperation among people of different races or ethnicities—it also reduces trust and cooperation among people of the same race and ethnicity. If true, then what policies can help bind Americans together, rather than divide them, if immigrants continue to come to the U.S. for economic betterment?
VALUES & CULTURE
1. In 2014, the University of California listed the term “melting pot” as a “micro-aggression.” Is assimilation an agreed-upon goal?
2. What does it mean to be a nation made up of a mosaic of different cultures, living side-by-side but respectful of each other, versus expecting all cultures to eventually meld into one “American” culture, while perhaps holding on to a few defining vestiges?
3. A pre-election study showed that the single best predictor of whether a voter supported Trump was whether he or she agreed with the statement “People living in the U.S. should follow American customs and traditions.” How do you define American customs and traditions? How fluid is this definition?
4. Guest-worker programs — beloved by many tech companies — require immigrants to work in a particular job to remain in the U.S. -- which some experts believe drives down wages and inhibits assimilation. Does this create two legal systems -- one for immigrants and one for those who have roots in the United States? What are the problems if this is the case?
5. Should we change the current system, which allows immigrants living in the U.S. to bring certain close relatives to the country, in favor of a “merit based” approach that prioritizes highly skilled and educated workers?
6. If Americans are one people, bound together by the rule of law, what does it mean to have immigrants who are here illegally? Does this undermine the rule of law?
7. In a “melting pot” America, what does it mean to have cultural institutions such as museums that cater specifically to immigrant/ethnic cultures?
8. How do you see yourself? Are you a Mexican-American or Asian-American or just an American?
9. Should all immigrants be expected to speak English? Is English our de facto national language? Should it be national language by law?
10. Is it fair to have an expectation of a shared, common suite of customs that define being American, such as celebrating Thanksgiving?
11. Is there a uniquely American culture, shared by everyone? Or is the hallmark of our culture a suite of cultures existing side by side? How has the internet changed the idea of a monoculture?
12. Do we need a core set of shared values to vote as a nation, or does having a cornucopia of beliefs and customs make our democracy stronger?