Each new group of immigrants to the United States has faced its own challenges as it has assimilated into American society. And each group has added its own customs and traditions to the ethnic mosaic of American culture: from Italian pizza to Latin American salsa music to Gaelic tap dancing.
VOA correspondent Barbara Schoetzau recently spoke with experts and immigrants about how new Americans assimilate into U.S. culture and change the United States.
Demographers and sociologists say it is difficult to analyze recent assimilation patterns in the United States because of immigration laws that took effect in 1968.
Anthony Orum, a specialist in immigration issues and trends at the University of Illinois, says the laws created a much more diverse immigrant population than in the past.
"Rather than getting large numbers of immigrants from Eastern and Western Europe, now we get many immigrants from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Mexico," he says. "Their stories tend to be different from the stories of earlier generations."
Their stories are as different as those of Tony Hanna, Oscar Carreno and Osmond Aznan. Tony came from Belfast, Northern Ireland for a two week vacation in 1975.
"I met up with a couple of Irish fellows and I got a job washing dishes in a restaurant in Times Square. I took my breaks at night and I walked around 42nd Street and I fell in love with New York," he says. "I decided to stay, not to go back."
Oscar was 19 years old when he and his brother left Colombia in 1980. "We came here because of necessity," he says. "We had to help our families there. There were no opportunities there. I always sent back money. Since the first time I started working here, never a month went by that I did not send money to my mother."
Osmond Aznan, a Kurd from Turkey, came to the United States in 1989. Three years ago, he and a Turkish friend opened the Istanbul Grill, a 24-hour-a-day restaurant they have recently expanded. Osmond says it is a struggle, but business is good.
"It is really tough. I didn't know it until I got into the business. It is very tough," he says. "We are okay. We are good. Every year we are almost double. Everything is fresh and made daily because we have no storage to keep it."
Professor Orum, says studies show some noticeable differences in recent patterns of assimilation. Most strikingly, unlike earlier groups, many recent immigrants are abandoning inner cites and resettling in ethnic enclaves in the suburbs, where they can survive without learning English well.
According to Oscar Carreno, learning English is not easy. But listening to radio and television helps. "In Colombia, I used to listen to a lot of rock music when I was a teenager, a lot of these heavy metal groups," he says. "I liked the music so much that at the same time you want to understand what they are saying so you kind of educate your ear and then you want to know what his word means and everything."
Sociologist Anthony Orum says many of his colleagues believe the current generation of immigrants are assimilating in the same way as previous generations. But he is not convinced.
"My own opinion from close observation over the past several years is that the ethnic community, whether you are Mexican, Indian, Nigerian, Polish, Bosnian, that the ethnic community remains very important to the groups of new immigrants," he says. "So that some may come in here and go ahead and move through the educational system, get great jobs, but they do not completely abandon the idea of their ethnicity or nationality."
Oscar has pursued the so-called American dream ever since he arrived in the United States, working two full-time jobs as a doorman to buy his own home and put his two daughters through school. But he also feels a deep attachment to his roots.
"It is within you. It is a blessing," he says. "It makes you a richer person a better person knowing that you can understand the American culture and at the same time you keep your culture. I have not lost my culture at all."
Professor Orum says studies show that many current immigrants, especially those from Latin America, move back and forth between the two cultures with ease.
"One of my arguments about the assimilation of previous generations, Irish and Italians, Polish, is that many of them were forced to abandon their national culture, their ethnicity by virtue of world wars and by virtue of the fact that many could not return," he says. "So they were here more or less permanently. Nowadays people can move back and forth easily between their home cultures and between the United States."
That ability is very important to Oscar Carreno who visits his family in Colombia and his wife's family in the Dominican Republic with his daughters every few years.
"You have to make them aware of where they come from and they are very proud of their cultures, Dominican and Columbian," he says. "At the same time, they are American citizens."
But Tony Hanna, a maintenance technician, did not go home for 22 years after arriving in the United States. "Nothing was changed in the neighborhood in Belfast that I am from," he says. "They had built new houses, but the people and everything else was pretty much the same. I was home three days when I called my sister and told her to change my ticket. I wanted to come back. I felt out of place. I felt like a tourist."
Still, Tony has made sure his children are aware of Irish traditions. "I think it is important for the kids," he says. "The kids went to Irish step dancing classes. My daughter took Gaelic-Irish language classes. Stuff like that. I think it is important to remember where you came from, but I also think it is very important that they are Americans first."
Despite concern about immigrants triggered by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, sociologists say there is little real tension between today's immigrants and the rest of American society.