Those who can recall their civics and U.S. history courses are no doubt familiar with the term "melting pot," a well-turned phrase used by teachers and succeeding generations of students to describe the creation of American society through the mixture of various cultures, religions and ethnic groups. While most often associated with the late 19th and early 20th centuries U.S. history, the "melting pot" expression applies, as well, to contemporary society.
According to the federal government's 2010 American Community Survey, the United States remains a nation that people from around the globe hope to call home. As a consequence, the number of foreign-born individuals in the United States numbered about 40 million. That's a record high, and an increase of about 9 million since the 2000 census. Even so, the foreign born represent a smaller proportion of the total population -- 13 percent -- than they did during the heyday of immigration more than a century ago.
The survey indicates that more than half of those born in foreign land now in residence here live in one of four states -- California, New York, Texas or Florida. It shows, too, that Mexico is the place of origin for most foreign-born U.S. residents, a total of about 11.7 million people. That nation is followed by China, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, El Salvador, Cuba and South Korea. That list reflects the ever-changing tide of immigration.
A century or more ago, the most common nations of origin were in either Western or Eastern Europe.
The best measure of whether the "melting pot" term is still viable as a builder of the nation is to determine how many of those born on foreign soil choose to become citizens. By that standard, the metaphor still works. Forty-four percent of foreign born individuals are now naturalized citizens. If that number seems low, there's a reason for it.
Immigrants generally have to live continuously in the United States for five years as a permanent resident before qualifying for citizenship. A large number then take an additional year or more to complete the requirements for naturalization. Many recent immigrants who long for citizenship have not been here long enough to make their dream come true.
As the survey shows, the United States by word and by deed continues to meet the historical and sociological definitions of a "melting pot." It remains a beacon of hope and symbol of freedom the world over and becomes even more attractive as succeeding waves of immigrants and their cultures continue to be folded into the durable fabric of U.S. society.