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America’s Diversity at the Beginning of the 21st Century: Reflections from Census 2000

Introduction

Questions about who belongs to America have long been part of the nation’s growth and struggle to absorb newcomers. The past two decades of historically high immigration levels have raised social, cultural and economic anxieties about a fractured America. The quantity of recent immigration, combined with the aftereffects of economic recession and a renewed uncertainty about immigrant newcomers since the September 2001 terrorist attacks by foreigners, may lead to a reconsideration of U.S. immigration and refugee policy. Public attitudes toward immigrants may turn toward wariness of immigrants, possibly eroding the openness to diversity that America has attained (Meissner, 2001).

While the U.S. has always regulated the quantity of immigrants admitted to the United States, it does little for immigrants once they arrive. The assumption is that the foreign-born will make their way with assistance from family and friends. However, adapting to an America that is diverse is challenging to both immigrant newcomers as well as established residents. Current trends raise concerns about shifting American national identity, and how an America that recognizes cultural differences yet encourages social and political unity can be fostered. What are the obligations of those who come to the United States to become “more like us?” And how should those living in the country respond?

This paper examines the changes to racial and ethnic diversity in contemporary America, focusing on demographic sources of change, primarily immigration, interracial marriage and fertility. It also discusses the role of changing Census methodologies in the construction of the United States as a diverse society.

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