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Common ground on who's American

Amid a heated immigration debate, a survey finds behavior is more important than background.

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"What does it mean to be an American?"

"Opportunity," says Rosita Romero, a second-generation émigré from El Salvador, lunching at Twain's Restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles.

"E Pluribus Hassle - out of many people, one bigger and bigger problem," says Brent Uggam, a truck driver from Kansas City, Mo.

When a Purdue University professor asked that question of 1,500 adult US citizens nationwide, he was surprised by the response.

Despite heated debate over illegal immigration, there is more uniting the country on the issue of national identity than dividing it, says Jeremy Straughn, the sociology professor who oversaw the telephone survey.

"The reason there is a perception that the country is so divided has more to do with the structure of our political system and the way the two-party system works than in the underlying core beliefs we found," he says.

For example, there is a wider acceptance of multiculturalism than in the 1920s.

"This conclusion is very reinforcing of a changed attitude toward multiculturalism now being accepted in the US as opposed to the biases of extreme racial purity of Northern European stock that characterized immigration at the turn of the [20th] century," says Harry Pachon, director of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, which studies policies affecting the Latino community.

The survey also finds that behavior is more important than one's background in defining who is an American.

"In general, voluntary behaviors are considered more important than qualities that are beyond an individual's control," the survey concludes. "Like birth or lifetime residence in the US or being of European descent."

Some of those behaviors may seem obvious. Ninety-four percent say that having US citizenship makes someone "truly American." Also more than 9 out of 10 people report that speaking English well and a willingness to pledge allegiance to the flag are important in defining someone as truly American. Seventy-six percent said that having an education and training matters.

But those answers do not include what has been central in the past. For example, 70 percent said it was not important that one's ancestors came mostly from Europe to be considered American, while 30 percent said it was.

The 120 survey questions ranged from the symbolic, including displaying flags and singing anthems, to the specific, such as voting and paying taxes.

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