Nativist Americans: Immigration, Historical Memory and the Dishonesty of Modern Racism

Although I am hardly known for waxing nostalgic over the American past or its white people in particular, there is one thing that can be said for such folks in the old days. When they were bigots, they were honest enough to just tell you. No prevarication, no hesitation, no pretending to be enlightened or remotely compassionate, no cloying assurances about one’s black friends, or how they once dated an Asian woman, or about being 1/16th Native American on their mother’s father’s side. They let you know where they stood, and however offensive and injurious their attitudes were, at least you could plan accordingly. You could avoid them, confront them, or plot for their overthrow, but either way, you knew who the enemy was.

Today, even racists want to seem tolerant, and so they have to lie about their real feelings; and while that might signify a type of progress, it makes knowing who’s who (and what they’re about) much harder.

Take the growing and increasingly bellicose anti-immigration movement, for instance. Always a part of the nation’s political discourse, hostility to newcomers was, for generations, sold in clearly prejudicial terms. From the Know-Nothings of the 1800s to those who succeeded in passing restrictive immigration legislation in the 1920s to those who openly opposed the loosening of those restrictions in the mid-’60s, anti-immigrant forces were never shy about making their case in blatantly racist, chauvinistic and bigoted ways. Even Benjamin Franklin’s pre-revolutionary concern that German immigrants to Philadelphia would succeed in “Germanizing us instead of us Anglifying them,” was rooted in an explicit desire to “other” those who, for reasons of ethnicity or “race,” were different from the dominant norm, and presumed inferior.

Nativists in earlier times, though they certainly made arguments similar to those heard today — about immigrants “taking American jobs” or “relying too heavily on public benefits” — wrapped all of these material concerns in a clear patina of racial hostility: newcomers were “culturally foreign,” “unassimilable” (because of language, ethnicity or even biology), and dragged down the “genetic quality” of the nation’s people. The infamous Dillingham Commission — empowered by Congress to examine the nation’s immigration situation and make recommendations for future policy — made the case for restrictions in explicitly racist and white supremacist fashion.

And for my money, their honesty made those earlier generations of anti-immgration crusaders far preferable to those we see today, whose animosities are every bit as rooted in white racial anxiety and hostility as they ever were, but who try mightily to deny it, to insist that they have nothing against brown folks, but merely worry about the labor market, or taxes, or some such thing. Whereas the old school nativists were racists, the new brood is populated by racists and liars, and sometimes it’s nice to only have to deal with one kind of sociopath at a time.

The Legality Ruse: Why Anti-Immigrant Sentiment is Not About “Following the Rules”

Of course, when you suggest that opposition to immigration from Mexico or Central America (as with the current refugee crisis at the border) is really about deep-seated racial hostility and a desire to maintain white hegemony, most who comprise the anti-immigration forces are quick to deny it. “We’re not against immigration or immigrants,” they insist, “we just think they should come the right way, legally, like our ancestors did.”

But of course this line of argument is both historically absurd and utterly insincere. As for what “our” (presumably European) ancestors did: to give them some kind of pat on the back for having “come legally” ignores the fact that for most of American history there were no laws preventing their entry, and thus no laws to break. Thanks to the 1790 Naturalization Act, which made “all free white persons and only free white persons” citizens of the U.S., pretty much immediately, there was virtually no way for them to have come illegally even had they been so inclined. To praise the law-abidingness of people who didn’t break a law that didn’t even exist is self-evidently preposterous. And surely, looking back on our ancestors, ask yourself the question: If there had been laws prohibiting their entry, and yet, they had been close enough, geographically, to come to the U.S. anyway, do we really think they would have refrained from doing so, even as they sought to escape political persecution and economic destitution, just because they wouldn’t want to break the law? Surely not. They would have done the exact same thing as current immigrants, the law be damned.

But beyond being completely counter-historical, the argument about legal versus illegal immigration is fundamentally disingenuous, in that concerns about the legal status of new migrants is not even remotely what anti-immigrant forces are bothered by.

Don’t believe me? Fine, feel free to test it. Ask one of these folks who claim that they wouldn’t mind Mexicans and Salvadorans and Guatemalans coming, so long as they came legally, if they would support streamlining the application process, so as to make it easier for such persons to do just that. If they are so compassionate and sympathetic, and willing to welcome these newcomers to the U.S., so long as their entry is above-board, then why not advocate immigration reform that would make it easier for them to come in a documented fashion? Significantly ease the process, simplify the paperwork, and slash the wait times for so-called legal migration, so that persons wishing to come to the U.S. would have no reason to risk their lives crossing the border, or being trafficked by charlatans taking advantage of desperate families, because they could come legally in a quick, efficient and safe manner.

Legality and illegality, after all, is not a function of some immutable characteristic of immigrants themselves; it is simply a function of how the law defines legality, how difficult legal immigration is made, and how the law is enforced. If immigration were made easy enough, few if any Mexicans, for example, would cross the border undocumented. There would be no need to. And so, voila! We could virtually eliminate undocumented migration, and almost immediately, by making these changes. If all that really bothered the new restrictionists were the legal status of those coming to the country, then they would presumably support such policy changes, support immigration liberalization, and put away their angry signs, hostile e-mails and belligerent rallies. That they don’t support anything like this — not one among them — and that they are as wedded to their hateful displays as a kidney patient is to dialysis, betrays their real motivations quite clearly.

Further demonstrating that it is the ethnicity of immigrants that concerns them, and not their legal status, note that few in the anti-immigration crowd demonstrate any real worry over the millions of persons currently in the country “illegally” who merely overstayed otherwise valid visas. At least 4 in 10 of the currently “undocumented” in the U.S. fit this description. In other words, they did not cross any border lacking proper documentation. They came legally, either as students or visitors, or to work, and remained after their visas expired. And why might they be less concerned about such “illegals” as these? It seems fair to conclude that the disproportionate whiteness of many of them — students, workers or visitors from Europe — might have more than a little to do with it.

Ultimately, anti-immigrant sentiment is motivated by an implicit form of white nationalism, which holds that “real Americans” are white and that all others are interlopers, or at least lesser Americans than we who hail from Europe. This is why so many among this bunch are quick to support policies like those passed (but largely blocked by the courts) in Arizona, which would allow law enforcement to basically stop anyone they suspected of being undocumented and ask for legal proof of their citizenship. That such policies would codify color-based profiling, thereby subjecting all Latinos in the state to these kinds of indignities, regardless of their citizenship, should be obvious. But to the nativists, they don’t care. Because to most of them, brown is probable cause, and brown is the problem.

Misremember When: The Un-Romantic Truth About European Immigration

And it is not only that brown is the problem in the eyes of the new nativists, but that brown peoples are seen as having such fundamentally different motivations for their journeys here — when contrasted with those of our own ancestors — as to render them hardly recognizable to the larger American experiment. According to the narrative of the new white nativists, our ancestors came in search of freedom and liberty — in other words, on the basis of deeply-held values and principles — while today’s migrants are only coming for stuff: jobs or health care or other public benefits that they don’t pay for the way citizens do, via taxation.

Putting aside the fact that undocumented migrants do not, in fact, receive more in public benefits than they pay in taxes, nor have much impact on the employment picture for native-born workers, the larger function of this argument is to place new immigrants in some kind of alternative moral universe, where not merely their material impact but their very motivations and ethics are called into question and found lacking relative to our own and those of our predecessors.

Framed this way, past immigration is able to retain its specialness, its mythic status as a movement of persons yearning to be free of the yoke of foreign oppression, and can be separated from any purely selfish motivations, like the desire for land or riches. To believe that one’s ancestors just wanted freedom while someone else just wants a job (as if being able to support one’s family didn’t also help purchase a certain kind of freedom), is to elevate one’s own forbears in some hierarchical pyramid of moral value. It is to suggest that while naked self-interest is what motivates Mexicans, we plucky Anglos (or Irish, or Germans, or whatever) had (and have) more high-minded concerns.

Yet this hagiographic remembrance of the Euro-American past is utterly without merit. As James Baldwin explained in 1963:

What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors. It’s astounding to me, for example, that so many people really seem to believe that the country was founded by a band of heroes who wanted to be free. That happens not to be true. What happened was that some people left Europe because they couldn’t stay there any longer and had to go someplace else to make it. They were hungry, they were poor, they were convicts.

In other words, the ancestors of those of us from Europe, and in each generation of migrants to these shores, were the losers of their respective societies: they were desperate, they were hungry, they were, in short, coming here for stuff no less so than the family from Juarez or Tegucigalpa or Guatemala City today. Principle is not what drove them; empty bellies were quite enough. Freedom was their touchstone perhaps, but mostly insofar as one could not be substantively free so long as one could not feed one’s family. The winners, to be sure, didn’t leave the place where they were winning, and why would they? If one were doing well in the old world, why would one choose to get on a boat with one’s kith and kin and take to the high seas in search of a new start? No indeed, the winners stayed put, while the losers climbed aboard and made the journey. And this is no calumny upon their character, but quite the opposite; it is meant to indicate the fundamental commonality between us and those we have deemed the dreaded other. It is to suggest that in our failure to understand our own history — and especially the fact that none of our ancestors actually wanted to come here either — we build a wall between ourselves and current migrants that prevents us from acting on the basis of human compassion, the way most would if we could see ourselves in the other. By believing that our families’ dreams were fundamentally different and more valid than those of Latino migrants, we perpetuate a dehumanization that ensures cruelty towards persons whose motivations to come here are largely the same as those that drove our ancestors.*

Like Arsonists Blocking the Exits: Mass Immigration as a Function of U.S. Policy

Interestingly, if the new nativists wish to reduce the flow of undocumented migrants, there are ways to accomplish this end far more humane and compassionate than sealing the border, mass deportations, and other forms of restrictive legislation. After all, much of the desperation driving people to the U.S. from Mexico and Central America has been caused by the policies of this nation: from the decades-long support for military dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador to so-called free trade policies of NAFTA and CAFTA, both of which have opened Mexican and Central American markets to heavily-subsidized agricultural goods from the U.S., thereby undercutting the financial stability of farming in those places and pushing agricultural labor off the land in search of jobs and income.

If the reactionary right-wing would spend less time demonizing the poor and persons of color, and more time focusing on trying to change economic policies pushed and supported by global economic elites, they could help make life more livable in those countries from which migrants are coming — thereby reducing the push-out incentives that drive immigration to the U.S. — and at the same time do something for U.S. workers, who have seen their wages bid downward by these trade agreements as well. To focus on stopping the migration without stopping the pain that drives it (and especially when your own country has helped foster much of that pain) is like an arsonist setting fire to a building and then blocking the exits as folks try and escape.

The fact is, few people in history have ever really wished to leave their countries of origin. For the most part, whether here or anywhere else, whether in this era or any other, migration patterns are driven by desperation. Most of us would prefer to be able to make it, to survive, to thrive, to support ourselves and our families right where we live, without having to pack up and go to some new place, where we will be forced to start all over again.

And surely no one would willingly subject themselves to the hostility and outright hatred being thrown in the faces of today’s immigrants, all for the sake of emergency medical care and a slot in a frankly underfunded public school. But sadly, that is what they are being subjected to, by persons too beholden to their own founding mythology to realize that insofar as we treat newcomers like permanent outsiders, we spit on the memories of our own forbears, so many of whom wanted the same thing as desperate families today.

*Frankly, if there be any moral distinction to be drawn between the two sets of migrants, it would no doubt redound to the benefit of the modern contingent rather than our own. After all, in the case of the latter, quite a few came with the full intent to dispossess indigenous peoples of their land and to utilize the stolen labor and bodies of still others — Africans — so as to build up their own station. At least with Mexicans they are largely returning to a land that was once theirs, prior to the forcible conquest of it in the mid-1800s, and they are willing to do the work themselves, rather than enslaving others to do it for them.


Comments are closed.