Not “A Nation of Immigants”
Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Published by Beacon Press
The idea that the United States is a nation of immigrants is an ideology. It is not historical and it wasn’t part of how the US is described until fairly recently, but it has become such an integral part of how those in the US see themselves that contemporary anti-immigration rhetoric is met with dismay. Pundits on the left will exclaim, “When did a nation of immigrants become a nation that hates immigrants?”
The US has always hated immigrants. A fiscal-military state, it wants their labor, but not the people, and the first legislation written about immigrants was to control them. The right wing seems to understand this and it continues this legacy, writing legislation that bars immigrants from some countries while encouraging those from others. These lines are drawn on arguably racist grounds with preference being given to those countries more aligned with white supremacist ideas about who is and is not civilized and therefore worthy of welcome. Foreign worker legislation is particularly egregious in its exploitation of workers who come from countries that are largely destabilized by Western economies and the military actions that support them.
And yet despite the clear historical record regarding the US and immigration, the “nation of immigrants” idea remains a deeply held belief, a promise that liberals want their elected officials to keep. While the right persists in maintaining the US’ anti-immigration legacy, the left wants to see reform and inclusion, broadening the circle of those who are welcomed and permitted to stay. Model minority language abounds, where the right will talk about how these countries are sending their worst and the left will point to how important immigrants are to the US economy and hold up examples of migrants who make exceptional contributions as evidence that they should be welcomed.
But welcomed into what?
In Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s new book, Not “A Nation of Immigrants” she takes aim at this ideology and the creation of a myth that has become so deeply embedded in the US psyche. She begins with the musical “Hamilton” and its re-imagining of the US creation story with a Black Alexander Hamilton who calls himself an immigrant. She notes that this conflation is dangerous in two ways. Hamilton was not an immigrant, not even a white immigrant. He was an Englishman who moved from an English colony in the Caribbean to an English colony in North America, no more an immigrant than somebody who moves from New York to California. More importantly, the slaves that Hamilton actually owned were not immigrants either. Putting a Black face on the story of American immigration erases the reality of the Middle Passage, something that Obama himself did in a speech given in December 2015 when he said, “Certainly it wasn’t easy for those of African heritage who did not come here voluntarily, and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves.”
Dunbar-Ortiz traces the origins of this myth to a book written in 1958 by then Senator John F. Kennedy. His book, A Nation of Immigrants, was written in the postwar period when migrants from Europe were coming to the US amid xenophobia and anti-immigration rhetoric. The Anti-Defamation League sponsored and published the book. It was re-issued in 2008 and a 2018 version was endorsed by US Senator Marco Rubio and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Whether it is Muslim bans or border walls, every time the US is faced with who it actually is, the “nation of immigrants” ideology resurfaces in an attempt to bring calm.
The book follows up this bold claim, that it is ideology rather than history, with a review of US history demonstrating again and again that the US has consistently worked against immigrants even while it exploited their labor. Over time some of these immigrants became Americanized and absorbed into US society, but as each generation nativized it viewed subsequent waves of immigration with suspicion if not outright hostility. This is important history, but what Dunbar-Ortiz does in her book is even more critical than developing a basic understanding of US immigration policy over 250 years. She situates the myth squarely within settler colonialism and demonstrates how it works to erase Indigenous presence by nativizing those who came from elsewhere.
It is not enough to simply deny that the US is a nation of immigrants by pointing out its history of hostility toward immigrants. This plays into liberal narratives of reform and correction. It suggests that the US could become a nation of immigrants, could achieve its promise as if that would resolve things. But an immigrant is one who fits themselves into an existing polity, and there is no time in US history where the settlers or the nation they built has ever done that. The early colonies were corporations backed by European militaries who imposed a new order on the existing people even while the European states and then the US government recognized Indigenous tribes as legitimate polities with sovereignty and governance structures. One does not, after all, make treaties with unorganized people. The nation the settlers built retains that fiscal-military structure as well as that practice of imposing itself on Indigenous polities as both internal and external policy.
Right from the beginning Dunbar-Ortiz identifies the dispossession of Indigenous peoples as a constitutive principle for the emerging US state. We are the “merciless Indian savages” of the Declaration of Independence whose existence poses a threat to the new colonies. We remained a threat throughout westward expansion and up to the present and it was gratifying to see her use the words “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” in her discussions of clearing the eastern colonies and then westward into the Pacific. So often authors will dance around these terms, recognizing and yet still diminishing the reality of what was done, what continues to be done.
Dunbar-Ortiz’ review of US history moves through the various ways that the US was populated: the forced migration of Black people from Africa and their enslavement in the Americas, the “yellow peril” of Chinese and Japanese labor, and the border which crossed Indigenous and mixed-race Mexicans. Each group was valued for their labor and then devalued and framed as threats. Labor and policing are recognized for the ways in which they have both operated to control and exclude unwanted migrants even while they rely on them. The border, which moved over Indigenous and mixed-race Mexicans, is identified as a source of violence.
Dunbar-Ortiz writes about the Americanization of Christopher Columbus, which took place while actual Italians were vilified and racially marginalized along with the Irish, who did not “become white” so much as they became aligned with the colonial state. What is important is that she does all this while situating the Americanization of various groups within the displacement of Indigenous people, constantly reminding the reader that this nativization is rooted in erasure.
It is unfortunate that she does not address her own historic claims to being Cherokee, claims that she no longer makes as they appear to have been based in the very myths that she is unpacking. Having her training as a historian turned on her own family and previous claims would be powerful given that it is rooted in the things that she discusses in the book and that these kinds of claims persist. Although she does not typically make use of personal narrative outside of her memoirs, it may have been helpful to do so here.
In the final chapter she critiques the current discourse of race relations, citing Mahmood Mamdani who writes: “A deracialized America still remains a settler society and a settler state.” In much mainstream discourse, Native peoples are framed as victims of racism rather than colonialism, a framing that allows for the creation of a more diverse and inclusive settler-colonial state. Such a framing demands only more opportunity rather than restoration of land or sovereignty. Multiculturalism, she says, is a response to civil rights and as such it may be a boon to racially marginalized people, those who have been devalued and framed as threats, but it puts those seeking equity on the side of settler colonialism rather than justice and such inclusion will be won at the cost of Indigenous people.The book is, Dunbar-Ortiz says, a call for all those who have gone through immigrant or migrant processes, those who have come through forced migrations, or whose ancestors did so, to choose sides. You can uphold settler colonialism and Indigenous erasure by seeking inclusion and solidarity within the state or you can partner with Indigenous peoples. I am reminded of Aurora Levins Morales and Alexis Shotwell who write about the relationships that we inherit. Perhaps you did not do these things. Perhaps you did not settle or colonize. But, you have inherited these relationships and the benefits of settler colonialism and you can choose what you will do with your inheritance.
*A previous version of this article stated Alexander Hamilton moved from England. It has been updated to reflect that Hamilton moved from an English colony.