Cultivating Cohesion: Bringing Immigrants and Citizens Together through National Service

– Executive Summary –

One of the greatest strengths of the United States is its cultural diversity and the resultant successful collaboration between citizens and immigrants to build the largest national economy in the world.[1] One can look to the United States’ high-technology and agricultural industries—both of which are significant players in the global market and employ thousands of foreign-born workers and U.S. citizens—for two examples of the importance of this collaboration.[2] Yet, diversity and immigration are also sources of tension, resentment, and distrust among citizens and immigrants despite their outstanding collaborative achievements.

Over the last decade, anti-immigrant sentiment has steadily increased in mainstream public and political discourse, the news, and on social media in the United States.[3] The mainstreaming of anti-immigrant discourse has caused deep political polarization among U.S. citizens and has ostracized certain immigrant groups. Tension, fear, and distrust between immigrants and citizens are not just a societal concern—they are a homeland security issue with far-reaching impacts. The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 2016 Orlando nightclub mass shooting highlight how prejudice and fear of immigrant communities could lead to radicalization if individuals never feel fully integrated or accepted by U.S. society.[4] Likewise, the 2019 mass shooting at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, and the steep increase in hate crimes against Asians following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate how anti-immigrant sentiment and discrimination can lead to violence against immigrant and citizen ethnic minorities in the United States.[5] 

The United States is not the first country to struggle with internal division between different cultures and people. During the 1970s, Canada experienced tension between its Anglophone, Francophone, and Indigenous cultures. To address the widening division and the rise of home-grown terrorist attacks within the country, the Canadian government instituted a national service program called Katimavik to bring Canadians from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds together.[6] This thesis explores how the United States can likewise use national service to bring citizens and immigrants together to strengthen cohesion between the groups.

This thesis presents three case studies of national service programs that are relevant to the culture and context of the United States. Two case studies are of domestic programs—one historical and one current—and one case study is on a foreign program. The first case study examines the United States’ first and largest national service program, the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression and ran from 1933 to 1942. The second case study covers AmeriCorps, the United States’ third non-military national service program, which was established in 1993 by President Bill Clinton and is still in operation today. Specifically, this case study examines City Year, which is one of AmeriCorps’ largest State and National partner organizations. The third case study covers Katimavik, the Canadian national service program that inspired this research topic.

Each case study assesses how the national service structure and program impacts participants and the communities they serve. The thesis then conducts a comparative analysis of all three programs regarding their effectiveness in bringing together diverse participants and cultivating cohesion, bringing together participants and community members, and providing services that benefit and strengthen the nation. Based on the comparative analysis, this thesis identifies three major findings.

The first finding is that national service by itself does not necessarily bring diverse people together and cultivate close relationships or comradery. If the United States wishes to create a national service program that strengthens relationships between citizens and immigrants, the program must be developed with the specific intent to bring people from diverse backgrounds together and to foster inclusion, equity, belonging, and respect among those people. The second finding is that to make a national service program sustainable, the program must have relevant and measurable objectives. A national service program must be able to prove that it is achieving a goal that significantly benefits the nation to secure ongoing funding as well as political and public support. The third finding is that to make lasting impact and change across a nation, a national service program must be large scale, which likely means it needs to be mandatory.

Based on these findings, this thesis recommends that policy makers who wish to create a national service program that aims to strengthen cohesion between citizens and immigrants incorporate each of the following six elements:

  1. commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging
  2. measurable objectives
  3. parameterized participant selection for group formation
  4. program-provided group housing, transportation, and a food stipend
  5. a near-peer mentor for every participant group
  6. scale

By developing a national service program with these recommendations, policy makers have the potential of building trust and a shared sense of purpose between two major groups within the United States, and in turn strengthen the nation against the destructive effects of division, fear, and polarization.


[1] “Economy & Trade,” Issue Areas, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, accessed October 21, 2021, https://ustr.gov/issue-areas/economy-trade.

[2] “Agribusiness Spotlight: The Agribusiness Industry in the United States,” Select USA, accessed October 22, 2021, https://www.selectusa.gov/agribusiness-industry-united-states; Marcelo Castillo and Skyler Simnitt, “Farm Labor,” USDA Economic Research Service, March 15, 2022, https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/farm-labor/; and Adrian Otoiu and Emilia Titan, “Trends among Native- and Foreign-Origin Workers in U.S. Computer Industries,” Monthly Labor Review, December 2017, https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2017/article/trends-among-native-and-foreign-origin-workers-in-us-computer-industries.htm.

[3] Anti-Defamation League, Mainstreaming Hate: The Anti-Immigrant Movement in the U.S. (New York: Anti-Defamation League, 2018), 8–9, https://www.adl.org/the-anti-immigrant-movement-in-the-us.

[4] The two brothers involved in the Boston marathon bombing, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, both obtained asylum in the United States as minors through their father. Omar Mateen, who was the gunman involved in the Orlando nightclub shooting, was born in the United States to immigrant parents. Julia Preston, “F.B.I. Interview Led Homeland Security to Hold Up Citizenship for One Brother,” New York Times, April 20, 2013, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/21/us/tamerlan-tsarnaevs-citizenship-held-up-by-homeland-security.html; Ryan Andrew Brown et al., What Do Former Extremists and Their Families Say About Radicalization and Deradicalization in America? (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2021), https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RBA1071-1.html; Dan Barry et al., “‘Always Agitated. Always Mad’: Omar Mateen, According to Those Who Knew Him,” New York Times, June 18, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/19/us/omar-mateen-gunman-orlando-shooting.html.

[5] In August 2019, a gunman killed twenty-two people in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart because he believed there was a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Nineteen minutes before opening fire in the Walmart using an AK-47, the gunman posted an anti-immigrant screed on an online message board. He later confessed to law enforcement that he drove ten hours to reach El Paso, and that his intent was to kill Mexicans. “More Than 9,000 Anti-Asian Incidents Have Been Reported Since the Pandemic Began,” NPR, August 12, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/08/12/1027236499/anti-asian-hate-crimes-assaults-pandemic-incidents-aapi; Vanessa Romo, “El Paso Walmart Shooting Suspect Pleads Not Guilty,” NPR Law, October 10, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/10/10/769013051/el-paso-walmart-shooting-suspect-pleads-not-guilty.

[6] Matthew S. Brennan and Kyle L. Upshaw, “American Service New National Service for the United States” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2012), http://hdl.handle.net/10945/27799.

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