From Dr. Roxanne Dunba-Ortiz. It's certainly a "feel-good" expression, though wholly inaccurate to see ourselves as a "nation-of-immigrants" when this false narrative includes people native to this continent.
by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
A nation of immigrants: This is a convenient myth developed
as a response to the 1960s movements against colonialism,
neocolonialism, and white supremacy. The ruling class and its brain
trust offered multiculturalism, diversity, and affirmative action in
response to demands for decolonization, justice, reparations, social
equality, an end of imperialism, and the rewriting of history -- not to
be "inclusive" -- but to be accurate. What emerged to replace the
liberal melting pot idea and the nationalist triumphal interpretation of
the "greatest country on earth and in history," was the "nation of
By the 1980s, the "waves of immigrants" story even included
the indigenous peoples who were so brutally displaced and murdered by
settlers and armies, accepting the flawed "Bering Straits" theory of
indigenous immigration some 12,000 years ago. Even at that time, the
date was known to be wrong, there was evidence of indigenous presence in
the Americas as far back as 50,000 years ago, and probably much longer,
and entrance by many means across the Pacific and the Atlantic --
perhaps, as Vine Deloria jr. put it, footsteps by indigenous Americans
to other continents will one day be acknowledged. But, the new official
history texts claimed, the indigenous peoples were the "first
immigrants." They were followed, it was said, by immigrants from
England and Africans, then by Irish, and then by Chinese, Eastern and
Southern Europeans, Russians, Japanese, and Mexicans.
There were some
objections from African Americans to referring to enslaved Africans
hauled across the ocean in chains as "immigrants," but that has not
deterred the "nation of immigrants" chorus.
Misrepresenting the process of European colonization of
North America, making everyone an immigrant, serves to preserve the
"official story" of a mostly benign and benevolent USA, and to mask the
fact that the pre-US independence settlers, were, well, settlers,
colonial setters, just as they were in Africa and India, or the Spanish
in Central and South America. The United States was founded as a
settler state, and an imperialistic one from its inception ("manifest
destiny," of course). The settlers were English, Welsh, Scots,
Scots-Irish, and German, not including the huge number of Africans who
were not settlers. Another group of Europeans who arrived in the
colonies also were not settlers or immigrants: the poor, indentured,
convicted, criminalized, kidnapped from the working class (vagabonds and
unemployed artificers), as Peter Linebaugh puts it, many of who opted
to join indigenous communities.
Only beginning in the 1840s, with the influx of millions of
Irish Catholics pushed out of Ireland by British policies, did what
might be called "immigration" begin. The Irish were discriminated
against cheap labor, not settlers. They were followed by the influx of
other workers from Scandinavia, Eastern and Southern Europe, always more
Irish, plus Chinese and Japanese, although Asian immigration was soon
barred. Immigration laws were not even enacted until 1875 when the US
Supreme Court declared the regulation of immigration a federal
responsibility. The Immigration Service was established in 1891.
Buried beneath the tons of propaganda -- from the landing of
the English "pilgrims" (fanatic Protestant Christian evangelicals) to
James Fennimore Cooper's phenomenally popular "Last of the Mohicans"
claiming "natural rights" to not only the indigenous peoples territories
but also to the territories claimed by other European powers -- is the
fact that the founding of the United States was a division of the Anglo
empire, with the US becoming a parallel empire to Great Britain. From
day one, as was specified in the Northwest Ordinance that preceded the
US Constitution, the new republic for empire (as Jefferson called the
US) envisioned the future shape of what is now the lower 48 states of
the US. They drew up rough maps, specifying the first territory to
conquer as the "Northwest Territory," ergo the title of the ordinance.
That territory was the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes region, which was
filled with indigenous farming communities.
Once the conquest of the "Northwest Territory" was
accomplished through a combination of genocidal military campaigns and
bringing in European settlers from the east, and the indigenous peoples
moved south and north for protection into other indigenous territories,
the republic for empire annexed Spanish Florida where runaway enslaved
Africans and remnants of the indigenous communities that had escaped the
Ohio carnage fought back during three major wars (Seminole wars) over
two decades. In 1828, President Andrew Jackson
(who had been a general leading the Seminole wars) pushed through the
Indian Removal Act to force all the agricultural indigenous nations of
the Southeast, from Georgia to the Mississippi River, to transfer to
Oklahoma territory that had been gained through the "Louisiana Purchase"
from France. Anglo settlers with enslaved Africans seized the
indigenous agricultural lands for plantation agriculture in the Southern
region. Many moved on into the Mexican province of Texas -- then came
the US military invasion of Mexico in 1846, seizing Mexico City and
forcing Mexico to give up its northern half through the 1848 Treaty of
Guadalupe Hidalgo. California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah,
Texas were then opened to "legal" Anglo settlement, also legalizing
those who had already settled illegally, and in Texas by force. The
indigenous and the poor Mexican communities in the seized territory,
such as the Apache, Navajo, and Comanche, resisted colonization, as they
had resisted the Spanish empire, often by force of arms, for the next
40 years. The small class of Hispanic elites welcomed and collaborated
with US occupation.
Are "immigrants" the appropriate designation for the indigenous peoples of North America? No.
Are "immigrants" the appropriate designation for enslaved Africans? No.
Are "immigrants" the appropriate designation for the original European settlers? No.
Are "immigrants" the appropriate designation for Mexicans
who migrate for work to the United States? No. They are migrant
workers crossing a border created by US military force. Many crossing
that border now are also from Central America, from the small countries
that were ravaged by US military intervention in the 1980s and who also
have the right to make demands on the United States.
So, let's stop saying "this is a nation of immigrants."
is a long-time activist, university professor, and writer. In addition
to numerous scholarly books and articles, she has written three
historical memoirs, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), Outlaw Woman: Memoir of the War Years, 1960–1975 (City Lights, 2002), and Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (South End Press, 2005) about the 1980s contra war against the Sandinistas.