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Jay Elliott

In his recent State of the State Address, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo rebuked the Trump Administration’s immigration policies in terms that have become standard for mainstream Democratic politicians:

The motto of this nation, that is on the seal of the nation…says e pluribus unum, “out of many one.” That’s the concept that founded the nation: bring all these different faces and all these different people from all these different places together, as one… We all came from somewhere else. We are all immigrants. Unless you are a Native American, you are an immigrant.”[1]

The key idea in Cuomo’s remarks is often summed up by saying that the United States was founded as a “nation of immigrants.” This concept has become essential to contemporary mainstream liberal views on immigration. It was at the center of Hillary Clinton’s immigration proposals in her 2016 presidential campaign, in which she affirmed that “we are a nation of immigrants.” According to Clinton, “fundamental American values” lead us to “embrace immigrants, not denigrate them” and to treat “those who come to our country with dignity and respect.”[2] We can expect that this rhetoric will again loom large among 2020 Democratic presidential contenders. In using this language, Democratic politicians have a strategic rhetorical purpose. They seek to link the struggles of present-day migrants to the US, most of whom are Asian, African or Latino, to a history that many middle-class white Americans feel good about: the immigration of their own European ancestors to the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Part of the power of “nation of immigrants” language is that it can seem to express an obvious historical truth. But in fact this way of characterizing American history has recently been disputed, in particular by conservative opponents of recent immigration patterns. These conservatives reject the “nation of immigrants” concept as a fundamental misreading of American history. Writing in the American Conservative, Howard Sutherland rejects accounts of America’s character and identity such as Cuomo’s, right down to his interpretation of the national motto.[3] According to Sutherland, “E pluribus unum explicitly commemorates the union of thirteen British colonies into one nation,” and does “not celebrate immigration.” Sutherland argued that the motto, rightly understood, in fact celebrates “the achievement of the settlers who founded those colonies.”

In place of the idea of a nation of immigrants, Sutherland and other conservative writers champion the idea of a “nation of settlers.” Although the two concepts can sound similar, conservatives see a vast difference between them. In the conservative vision, America’s original “settlers” are quite unlike the “immigrants” who came to the United States from Europe beginning in the nineteenth century. While those immigrants came in search of the greater opportunities the United States provided, the “settlers” established the nation that provided those opportunities in the first place. As Sutherland puts it, “It was the settlers’ nation, not empty wilderness, that later gave immigrants a new home.” Sutherland’s vision is not one that explicitly rejects immigration. But it draws a sharp distinction between the settler’s project of founding a new nation, and the immigrant’s project of joining that nation once founded.

Champions of the “nation of settlers” concept explicitly oppose the celebration of ethnic and cultural diversity associated with “nation of immigrants” rhetoric. In the conservative view, the settler project in fact depended on a high degree of ethnic and cultural coherence, at least within the dominant founding group. As Sutherland writes, “Absent a founding group or majority, [the United States] would be no nation at all, but a random gathering of people of assorted races, religions, and nationalities, united only by their presence in the same land.” Sutherland warns that, while such a “random gathering” of peoples “may be our multicultural future,” it is “not the American past.”

Conservative writers do not deny that large numbers of migrants entered the United States beginning in the nineteenth century, or that these migrants are an important part of American history. But they tell a significantly different story about those migrants, one that is very much designed to break the seeming link between this immigrant history and contemporary multiculturalism. In the conservative vision, America’s founding culture – one essentially derived from the British Isles – retained its dominance throughout past waves of immigration, effectively assimilating later arrivals. Conservatives acknowledge, if not celebrate, the fact that the settler project was one of domination, not only in relation to later immigrants, but also in relation to other subjugated groups. As Sutherland puts it with remarkable candor, “colonial Americans formed a nation in their own image… at the expense of the Indians they uprooted and the African slaves they imported.”

This interpretation of American history shocks centrist Democrats in the mold of Cuomo and Clinton. In a recent interview, NPR journalist Tom Gjelten described the “nation of settlers” view of American history as a novel and “alarming” development.[4] No doubt a retrograde settler agenda disturbs those of us who welcome the idea of a multicultural America. But here’s the rub: when it comes to the history, the conservatives have it right. The settler colonists who founded the United States were indeed engaged in a project of ethnic and cultural domination, a project that arguably lasted until at least the 1960s. In many ways, the real history of American immigration is of a piece with this project, a fact that we have to acknowledge if we want to undertake the real work involved in building a genuinely pluralistic society.[5]

The true story of America’s policies regarding territory, population and citizenship conforms much more closely to the settler image than to the welcoming “nation of immigrants” mythology. The story begins with two founding forms of racialized violence: the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands, and the forced importation of Africans as slaves. It continues with the violent conquest of the present-day Southwest in the 1840s, followed by the annexation of non-state territories such as the Philippines and Puerto Rico in the 1890s.[6] In each of these cases, peoples were brought under U.S. sovereignty without voluntarily “immigrating.”  In an ironic twist, the “nation of immigrants” story, while seeming to celebrate ethnic and cultural diversity, actually perpetuates long-standing forms of cultural domination and exclusion by continuing to write these peoples out of the American story. For Native Americans, the immigration of Europeans to the colonies and later the United States in fact meant forced emigration from their homelands. (The common attempt to include Native Americans in a universal U.S. immigrant narrative on the grounds that their ancestors migrated from Asia to the Americas thousands of years ago is profoundly misleading, since the narrative is about the U.S. as a political entity, from which Native Americans were systematically excluded.) Similarly, Africans brought to the United States as slaves, although “from somewhere else,” were not “immigrants” but captives. They were not included as equals in the U. S. political project, and the right of their descendants to fully participate in it as sovereign citizens is contested to this day. Mexicans resident in what became the American Southwest are likewise not “immigrants,” but people subjugated by conquest. By repeating the exclusion and marginalization of these peoples, the “nation of immigrants” narrative actually reflects the “assimilation” of later arrivals to dominant cultural expectations described by the settler narrative.

The “nation of immigrants” myth mischaracterizes even the history of immigration itself, which is not one of pan-ethnic multiculturalism but rather one of unambiguous racial and ethnic exclusions. The first U.S. immigration law, enacted in 1790, welcomed “any Alien” and invited him to become a citizen after a residence of just two years. But it also stipulated in no uncertain terms that the prospective citizen must be a “free white person.” During the nineteenth century, an influx of migrants led to an increasingly virulent backlash. This backlash is sometimes described as “anti-immigrant” or “nativist.” But this description is misleading. It was not opposed to immigration in general but rather to immigration by members of specific ethnic groups, such as the Irish, Southern Europeans, Jews and Asians. This ethnic animus took its most blatant form in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all new migration from China and barred all Chinese residents in the U.S. from citizenship in perpetuity. (It was expanded to include all of Asia in 1917.)

Similar anxieties about the racial and ethnic makeup of immigrant groups gave rise to the system of national origin quotas established in the early 1920s. This system, like earlier forms of “nativism,” was not hostile to immigrants as such. Toward immigrants from Europe it was positively welcoming, allocating 80,000 visas a year to Great Britain alone, and 356,000 to Europe as a whole. But it was deeply hostile to immigrants from outside Europe. To these immigrants, the U.S. Congress of the 1920s allocated comically, insultingly low numbers of visas: for all of Asia, just 492. For all of Africa, a mere 359.

These traditions of ethnic exclusion began to change only with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This legislation did away with the system of national origin quotas and paved the way for the large influx of migrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America that has transformed the US in the past fifty years. Yet even the story of this act reveals how ambiguous America’s relationship with immigration and ethnicity really is. In promoting the act, President Johnson pioneered the pan-ethnic “nation of immigrants” rhetoric that has become standard among modern Democratic politicians, describing the U.S. as “a country that was built by immigrants of all lands.” Appealing to this supposed pan-ethnic tradition, Johnson sought to replace the system of national quotas with a “merit” based system (ironically akin to the system recently proposed by the Trump administration). In a piece of Kennedyesque rhetoric, Johnson argued that the U.S. should ask potential migrants not “in what country were you born?” but rather “what can you do for our country?” The successful immigrant would answer the latter question by appeal to economically valuable skills and knowledge. (The 1965 act is often supposed to be of a piece with the anti-racism of the contemporaneous civil rights movement; there may be some truth in this. Certainly both events represented a repudiation of the settler project, in ways that would have far-reaching consequences for American political life. But in both cases a more local cause was Cold War politics, in which the U.S. competed for talent and prestige with the USSR.)

In a further ironic twist, Johnson’s meritocratic version of the act, although ostensibly anti-racist, would probably have at least temporarily preserved de facto the long-standing Eurocentric prejudice of U.S. immigration law, given that prospective immigrants with the sorts of economically valuable skills sought by U.S. policy makers at the time were concentrated in Europe anyway. (This is one reason conservatives favor such a merit-based system today.) But Johnson did not get the act he wanted. Conservatives in Congress feared the abandonment of the national quota system. They approved this change only after a compromise, in which they replaced Johnson’s merit-based system with an approach to visa allocation that they thought would help to preserve the existing ethnic and cultural character of the nation: family reunification. In yet another ironic twist, this compromise, intended to preserve the racial and ethnic preferences that had always been at the center of US immigration policy, instead produced the opposite effect. It turned out – as might perhaps have been expected – that the family members of U.S. residents from Asia, Africa and Latin America were much more eager than their European counterparts to move to the U.S. In the absence of national quotas, they were suddenly able to do so in large numbers. By the year 2000, 90% of new migrants arriving in the U.S. were from outside Europe.

The “nation of immigrants” narrative misrepresents even the most familiar modern immigration story, that of the Mexican migrants who have settled in the U.S. in large numbers since the 1960s. Following the annexation of a huge swath of former Mexican territory by the U.S. in 1848, young Mexican men regularly crossed the new border, following seasonal cycles of agricultural labor. These were not immigrants in the familiar sense, since they did not intend to settle permanently in the U.S. Nor were they encouraged to settle by American authorities, instead being offered only bracero or “guest-worker” status. They were subject to regular mass deportations from the 1930s to the 1950s. It was only with the advent of the modern immigration regime that large numbers of Mexicans sought to settle permanently in the U.S. The 1965 law conceptualized for the first time the movement of Mexicans across the border as “immigration,” on the pattern of immigration from all other countries. As a result, Mexican workers found themselves unable to move fluidly between the U.S. and Mexico, as they had previously done. It was only then that they reluctantly found themselves forced to settle permanently in the U.S., giving rise to the present U.S. population of undocumented “immigrants.”

The 1965 act did not reflect the history and values of a nation that welcomed “immigrants of all lands.” Instead, it embodied the real history of America as a nation that has always designed immigration policy around the needs, desires and fears of its founding settler culture. Through family reunification and ending the system of transnational Mexican labor, the act created, as an unintended consequence, the influx of immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America to the U.S. in the past five decades. These immigrants may herald a new, more pluralistic American future. But we should acknowledge how deeply that future would break with the American past. Gjelten bemoans the conservative “settler” agenda as a disturbing novelty. But he should know better. Speaking of the 1965 Immigration Act, he himself notes that “no other law [in the twentieth century] had quite the [same] effect on the character of our country.” I would add that the changes he has in mind have been largely unintended, and have yet to be fully integrated into the national character.

I’m hesitant to point all of this out for one simple reason: I recognize that the pretense of smooth historical continuity has often been essential to progress in American political life. Democratic politicians in the mold of Cuomo are savvy to try to enlist support for today’s immigrants by appealing to a supposed longstanding American tradition of welcoming all immigrants. The strategic exaggeration of continuity has proven especially indispensable to America’s fitful progress on matters of race. Frederick Douglass advanced the cause of abolition by implausibly praising the U.S. Constitution as a “glorious liberty document.” William Lloyd Garrison, who with greater truth denounced the Constitution as a “contract with hell” on account of its sanctioning of slavery, was much less effective. Appreciating the value of such illusions of continuity, I am loath to dismiss the “nation of immigrants” myth.

Yet recent experience suggests that much of the apparent consensus in post-1960s American life is just that – merely apparent. Conservatives are increasingly waking up to the fact that much of the social progress Americans made in the twentieth century sits uncomfortably with deeper levels of the American psyche, and that America’s compulsion to repeat its settler past is firmly on their side. Rather than holding onto a too easily-punctured myth of foundational multiculturalism, American progressives would do better to recognize the very real ruptures that the post-1965 regime has effected in American life, in immigration policy and beyond. The “nation of immigrants” myth urges us to welcome immigrants on the grounds that we all “came from somewhere else.” In the context of the myth, this idea distorts American history and minimizes the difficulty of progress. But, taken in a different sense, the idea of Americans as people “from somewhere else” is potentially useful, not as a description of a supposedly shared immigrant history, but as an expression of a wild hope: that we might yet arrive at a place that none of us has been before.

[1] Transcribed by the author from video of the speech: https://newyork.cbslocal.com/video/4010106-gov-cuomo-delivers-new-york-state-of-the-state-address/

[2] https://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/immigration-reform/

[3] https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-nation-of-immigrants-myth

[4] https://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/2019/01/16/685784285?showDate=2019-01-16. My narrative of the history of U.S. immigration policy is indebted to Gjelten’s A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).

[5] For progressive critiques of the “nation of immigrants” myth, see Aviva Chomsky, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal (Boston: beacon Press, 2014); and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015).

[6] For a revealing history of these territories and their ambiguous relationship to U.S. national identity, see Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019). Immerwahr points out that Filipinos were not only involuntarily subjected to U.S. sovereignty and denied citizenship, but were for a time prohibited from “immigrating” to the U.S. mainland.