Not a Nation of Immigrants

It’s an often repeated mantra, that American is a “nation of immigrants.” Ever since the phrase was popularized by John F. Kennedy (who used it as the title of a New York Times editorial and a book), it has been used by those on the right and the left of the political spectrum, though with different goals in mind. On the left, the phrase is usually meant to subvert patriotism to the cause of immigrant rights. On the right, the notion is used to flatten out the rich textures of our diverse experiences of America, the wrinkles and creases created by the circumstances shaping how we encountered this nation, and what the consequences or benefits of that encounter were for each of us,then and now. This flattening out of difference is often committed in the name of one law for one people, really the basis of colorblind racism.

Whether casting the U.S. as a “nation of immigrants” is used as a shield or a smoke screen, there are serious problems with the concept. First and perhaps most obvious, describing us as a nation of immigrants marginalizes the experiences of Native Americans who certainly never immigrated into the U.S. More rightly, the U.S. immigrated into Indian country, without permission and with catastrophic consequences to native people. And equating the experiences of African slaves, captured, kidnapped, and brought to the U.S. as property, with the struggle of pilgrims to adapt to colonial life is like equating the experiences of wrongfully convicted prisoners to that of tourists who get off at the wrong bus stop and end up lost. It makes no sense.

But we are doing more than simply confusing people about our history and contemporary politics when we exult the immigration narrative of America-the-melting-pot. We are actually, though perhaps inadvertently, contributing to a process of intentionally misleading people that really serves the interests of just one group, and not all of us, not even those of us who are immigrants.

We are not a nation of immigrants. We are a nation rooted in settler-colonialism perpetrated by a group that used race and gender as a way of organizing our economy and political system, determining on that basis who was legitimately a citizen, and who was not. Casting us as a nation of immigrants is a way of dividing the population up into two groups – those who count as Americans, and those who don’t. If our supposed greatness as a nation is rooted in our immigration story, what does that say about those who don’t share that story and are, in fact, marginalized by it. What of their contributions, not to mention their suffering?

This process of deciding who is a legitimate American and who isn’t, and what America is and is not is part and parcel of the “nation of immigrants” narrative. Whether we all mean it or not, continuing to uphold this lie directly serves to expunge the guilt of this nation, especially those who have historically benefited most from U.S. nationhood, for the historical atrocities committed in order to capitalize and build it. And that is more than coincidental, don’t you think?

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot is a community organizer, activist, cultural worker, and political writer. He has spent the last four decades exploring questions of racial injustice and racial formation and effective forms of resistance and strategies for change through community campaigns, cultural organizing, popular education, writing, and direct political advocacy.

Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against vigilante white supremacist groups, white nationalism, Nativism, and authoritarian evangelical political movements. In this work, he has served as a strategist, organizer, and social movement analyst. Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow and the Association of Asian American Studies 2017 Community Leader. He is busy at work on a number of projects, including writing a playbook for anti-fascists, and a primer on race and power. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition; Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence; and Eyes Right!: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash.

2 replies on “Not a Nation of Immigrants”

Well put. And there are so many of us who have a very mixed heritage and don’t fit into neat categories. You could say that America immigrated to them, in the case of my California ancestors.

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