In last night’s second Presidential debate, Mitt Romney used the phrase “We are a nation of immigrants” as his opening line to a voter’s question on immigration policy. This romantic idea, dripping with political correctness, manages to erase history, ignore social stigma, and homogenize the category of “immigrants” in a single sentence. The statement is horizontal; immigration is not. It suggests that the US has been a nebulous collection of travelers (which it hasn’t), all of them coming and going willfully and with agency (which they haven’t). It makes it seem as if there are no walls crossed and no lives risked, there is no degrading bureaucracy to contend with and no uniformed mercenaries waiting to harass, profile, and deport certain immigrants. It pretends as though there are not human beings designated as “legal” and “illegal.” It fails to recognize the sovereign territories of Indigenous peoples—the original inhabitants of this land—that exist within this “nation of immigrants.” The fact that Indigenous cultures are still thriving and still present in the US today invalidates that idea altogether.
Before we even get into this, let’s clear the air about Mitt Romney’s “roots.” His Mormon relatives fled to Chihuahua to escape anti-polygamy laws and his father returned to the US before Romney was born. Does that make him an immigrant? No. Do white people born to white people living in Mexico make them Mexican? No. Are US citizens living in Mexico who decide to return to the US immigrants? No.
First and foremost, the US Nation-State was created by European colonizers, and their descendents are now citizens enjoying privileged positions within the dominant culture of white supremacy. Then there were white settlers who either occupied stolen land or forcibly seized it from Indigenous peoples, and their descendants are privileged citizens also. The slaves on whose backs the US economy was built did not willfully migrate to the thirteen colonies. As a WOC professor of mine once said: “No one stood around on the shores of African countries and said ‘I wonder which slave ship I’ll take to the ‘New World’ today.’” Slave labor from Africa, imported labor from China, victims of human trafficking, and refugees don’t qualify as immigrants. Even the Bracero Program that imported laborers from Mexico, followed by a policy (“Operation Wetback”) designed to hunt down and deport disposable laborers of color… still not a “nation of immigrants.” Territories of the present-day Southwest were stolen from Mexico and colonized in the midst of violent Westward Expansionism, which means the US-Mexico border fence, US immigration policy, and white nativism are the only factors that construct folks from south of the border as “immigrants” in their homeland.
So let’s talk about US immigration policy and the creation of the US as a Nation-State direct from Mae M. Ngai, author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Fast forward to neocolonialism in the 20th century with the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 codifying the exclusion of Chinese, Japanese, and API folks in general, and establishing a system of allowing/disallowing immigrants from certain countries by numbers (national quotas) based on their “National origin.” With the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act (McCarran-Walter Act of 1952), quotas were replaced with numerical “caps” on immigration and, for the first time, it somewhat limited previously unhindered immigration from the “Western hemisphere.” This law, still in use today, established a legal preference for “skilled professional labor” as well, creating a hierarchy of ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ immigrants in the US. When immigrants have been divided along lines of race, and when race continues to determine inclusion and exclusion within immigration politics, there is no cohesive or equitable “nation of immigrants.”
But hold up—isn’t that a good a thing to say? Not if you’re white, and here’s why: Which immigrants are we? Are we the immigrants who have been excluded by law from entering the country? Are we the immigrants who live in fear of racial profiling? Are we the immigrants who get deported with our children left behind? Can we really claim to be immigrants when we are still colonizing and occupying Indigenous land?
Recent white immigrants have automatic racial belonging to the national body, and white colonizers of the past created the national body, giving whites tremendous privilege in migration power dynamics. As Toni Morrison said, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Immigrants with white skin have the privilege and physical safety of being read as American simply according to their color, which is a privilege immigrants of color do not have. When white politicians like Mitt Romney use the “nation of immigrants” phrase, he is pandering to reformist attitudes about immigration while supporting racist immigration policies like E-verify, secure communities, and “self-deportation.” He is also making it possible for whites to benignly say we came from “immigrants” rather than admit our ancestors were Native slaughtering slave owners responsible for colonialism and genocide. “Immigrants” sounds a lot nicer, doesn’t it?