Poll: Americans agree on many aspects of U.S. identity

Anita Snow and Hannah Fingerhut
Associated Press

Phoenix – Majorities of Americans agree that diversity strengthens the country and that values such as constitutional rights, a fair judicial system and the American dream are key to the nation’s identity, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

But the poll also reveals a striking division on some aspects of national identity by partisanship and racial or ethnic background. Americans are closely split over whether it’s better for immigrants to embrace a single U.S. culture or add their own variations to the mix.

In this Jan. 21, 2018, file photo, tourists ride the Staten Island Ferry to get a view of the Statue of Liberty in New York.

Immigration and identity have been a major part of the national conversation under President Donald Trump, who has cracked down on people entering the United States illegally and promoted construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump recently pushed down the annual cap for refugees allowed into the U.S. to a historic low of 18,000.

The poll finds majorities of white, black and Hispanic Americans all say diversity makes the country stronger, and the share of Americans saying diversity strengthens the country has grown slightly over the last year, from 53% to 60%.

About three-quarters of Democrats think diversity makes the country stronger, compared with about half of Republicans.

Jerry Perry, 63, of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, is a great-grandson of slaves and lifelong Democrat who thinks diversity is a positive.

“It makes the country a lot richer as it brings together all the tribes from all over the world,” said Perry. “No one should be afraid of that. God needed to have a place where every nation could be represented.”

But the poll finds division on how Americans think immigrants should contribute to the mix. Fifty-one percent of Americans say there should be an essential U.S. culture and set of values that immigrants assume upon arrival, while 46% say the country should be comprised of a blend of cultures and values that changes as new people arrive.

Still, Americans are somewhat more likely to say recent immigrants to the U.S. have retained their own cultures than that they have adopted an essential American one, 54% to 43%.

Tracy Torres, 33, a Democrat living in Palm Springs, California, says she thinks new cultures brought by immigrants make the United States better.

“I don’t think people should whitewash or forget their heritage,” said Torres, whose parents came to the United States from Mexico. “There is a lot of fear that comes with the word ‘immigration,’ but I think we should celebrate our differences.”

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say that immigrants should adapt to a shared American culture, 77% to 32%, while Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say recent immigrants actually have done that, 57% to 28%.

In this Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019 photo, Mohammad hides his face to protect his identity as he shows his hand with part of the index finger missing, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Torn between fear, frustration and a sense of duty, Mohammad, whose index finger was chopped off by Taliban after he voted in presidential elections five years ago, is undecided about defying insurgent threats to vote in Saturday's polls to choose a leader for another five years.

“I believe that immigrants need to come to America legally, and they need to understand our culture, the Constitution and our laws,” said Sandy Raisanen, 56, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to think a shared use of the English language or a shared culture and set of values are very important.

And more than twice as many Republicans as Democrats call it important for the nation’s identity that culture is grounded in Christian religious beliefs, 59% to 24%, or brought to the country by the nation’s early European immigrants, 51% to 22%.

White Americans are slightly more likely than black or Hispanic Americans to say a culture established by early European immigrants is very important, 37% versus 27% and 28%.

Americans nevertheless agree on several aspects of the nation’s identity. At least three-quarters of Republicans and Democrats say a fair judicial system, liberties defined by the Constitution, and “the ability of people living here to get good jobs and achieve the American Dream” are very important. Wide shares of white, black and Hispanic Americans say the same.

Majorities across political and demographic groups also call shared use of the English language important, though some are more likely to say so than others.

The poll shows that support for increasing legal immigration has ticked up from a year ago: 35% of Americans now say the number of legal immigrants to the U.S. should be increased, up slightly from 29% in August 2018.

Immigration remains a weak point for Trump, with 40% approving and 59% disapproving of how he’s handling the issue. Republicans overwhelmingly approve of Trump on immigration and Democrats overwhelmingly disapprove.

There are also stark differences by race and ethnicity, with white Americans divided on the president’s handling of the issue, while roughly 8 in 10 black Americans and Hispanics disapprove.

“He has not shown an inkling of mercy” toward immigrants, said Perry, who’s among the African Americans who disapprove of current immigration policies.

Fernando Rivera is a Republican who enthusiastically supports Trump and his immigration policies, even though Rivera’s own father was a Mexican immigrant.

He is among the 38% who support construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Forty-six percent of Americans are opposed.

Rivera, 48, says he believes immigrants today are treated much better than his father was when he came to the U.S., and there is a danger they can become a burden on safety net programs.

Now working for a Texas state agency for vocational rehabilitation, Rivera said the oil refinery jobs in his hometown of Grove, Texas, now go largely to Hispanics from countries ranging from Cuba and the Dominican Republic to Chile.

“I’ve always felt I was at the bottom of the totem pole, and then here came some more people to knock us out,” said Rivera. “Sometimes it feels very crowded here.”


The AP-NORC poll of 1,286 adults was conducted Sept. 20-23 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points. Respondents were first selected randomly using address-based sampling methods and later were interviewed online or by phone.


Hannah Fingerhut reported from Washington.