Aviva Chomsky, The Nation, September 13, 2016
Liberal Americans like to think of Donald Trump as an aberration and believe that his idea of building a great wall along the US-Mexico border to prevent immigrants from entering the country goes against American values. After all, as Hillary Clinton says, “We are a nation of immigrants.” In certain ways, in terms of the grim history of this country, they couldn’t be more wrong.
Donald Trump may differ from other contemporary politicians in so openly stating his antipathy to immigrants of a certain sort. (He’s actually urged the opening of the country to more European immigrants.) Democrats like Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton sound so much less hateful and so much more tolerant. But the policies Trump is advocating, including that well-publicized wall and mass deportations, are really nothing new. They are the very policies initiated by Bill Clinton in the 1990s and–from border militarization to mass deportations–enthusiastically promoted by Barack Obama. The president is, in fact, responsible for raising such deportations to levels previously unknown in American history.
A closer look at American history makes the notion that “we are a nation of immigrants” instantly darker than its proponents imagine. As a start, what could the very idea of a “nation of immigrants” mean in a land that was already home to a large native population when European immigrants started to colonize it? From its first moments, American history has, in fact, been a history of deportation. The initial deportees from the British colonies and the American nation were, of course, Native Americans, removed from their villages, farms, and hunting grounds through legalized and extra-legal force everywhere that white immigrants wanted to settle.
The deportations that began in the 1600s continued at least until the end of the nineteenth century. In other words, to celebrate the country’s “immigrant” origins also means celebrating the settler colonialism and native displacement that made the United States that nation of immigrants–and this has important implications for immigrants today, many of whom are indigenous people from Mexico and Central America.
Among the list of “injuries and usurpations” carried out by the King that were denounced in the Declaration of Independence, there was the fact that he had “endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.” In addition, he had, it claimed, “excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
Along with its commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” that document couldn’t have been clearer that the new country would also be committed to a settler colonial project of populating the land with white immigrants and getting rid of the natives. Put another way, deportation was written into the American DNA from the get-go and, put in election 2016 terms, the new country was, from the beginning, designed as an explicitly racist project to populate the land with white people. Perhaps this is what Donald Trump means with his now iconic slogan “Make America Great Again!”
Nor did this commitment to white supremacy through immigration change during the initial century of US history. The first Naturalization Act of 1790 encouraged white immigration by basing citizenship on race and offering it liberally to immigrants–defined as white Europeans–who were in this way made the privileged constituency of a new nation that had a slave system at its heart. (Although southern and eastern Europeans would face social prejudice in the United States, immigration and citizenship law always placed them in the “white” category.)
It was not until 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution created the right to citizenship by birth, making it possible for the first time for non-whites to become citizens. But when Congress passed that amendment, it had in mind only some non-whites: previously enslaved Africans and their descendants. Here’s the crucial line in which Congress made sure of that: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” Since Native Americans were not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States, they were excluded from citizenship by birth.
And the new Naturalization Act just as explicitly excluded lots of people who were in fact migrating to the United States in significant numbers in the 1870s. If you were European, you were, of course, still quite welcome to become a citizen. However, if you were, for example, Mexican or Chinese, while you were still welcome to come and work, you weren’t an “immigrant,” since you couldn’t become a citizen. Hence, the United States continued to be a “nation of immigrants”–but only of a specific sort.
Students of immigration history generally learn about the 1921 and 1924 quotas that, for the first time, placed restrictions on European immigration. Indeed, for about four decades in the mid-20th century, the United States ranked Europeans by their “racial” desirability and offered differential quotas to reduce the numbers of those less desired (Southern and Eastern Europeans in particular) entering the country.