Consider some of the primary players in American mythology: Black people remain imprisoned as America’s perpetual “inner Other,” while the “outer Other” in all of its changing images (Indians, communists, Muslim terrorists) is always located beyond the borders, beyond the pale. But the immigrant plays a curiously ambiguous role in the narrative of American innocence. Immigrants are outsiders who hope to be (or threaten to be) in transition to becoming insiders, to become Americans, to achieve – or, alternatively, to pollute – the American Dream.
A further ambiguity is that their condition is qualified by their skin color. The story of American immigration announces a welcome to all that is enshrined on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” There may be no poetic line better known in the entire world.
But this story – the Melting Pot, or the Ellis Island myth – is rife with such contradictions that its believers require an entire mythology to resolve them, a massive cognitive dissonance. When facts meet myth, it is the truth that must change to fit the myth. Four factors (race, religion, economics and politics) have deeply influenced the mythology of immigration.
Race: Blacks are the only people brought from elsewhere who didn’t choose to come. For 250 years they were considered to be a necessary evil. Asians have been treated similarly until the last 50 years.
Religion: For these same 250 years, America was essentially a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation (with the exceptions of Catholic Louisiana, Maryland and the distant Southwest), and it perpetuated the Reformation demonization of Catholics.
Economics: Legal definitions of those considered to be potential citizens (or at least acceptable workers) have always varied with the needs of business. Slavery is the best example, but there are many others, such as the Bracero program. Because of business growth, there were few limits on (white) immigration from 1860–1920, when no more workers were needed.
Politics: The opening and closing of the gates to citizenship have always been political decisions. Prior to and during World War Two, the U.S. refused to admit more than a trickle of Jewish refugees from Europe. Especially since 1975, people from unfriendly or leftist countries (Nicaragua, Viet Nam, the U.S.S.R., Iran and especially Cuba) have easily achieved admittance as political refugees, while those attempting to enter the U.S. from friendly or rightist countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, Indonesia), despite the overwhelming evidence of mass murder, have rarely been granted that status. Israelis are a special case, with unlimited immigrant privilege. In recent years the U.S. has allowed in very large numbers of South Asians (primarily Indians and Pakistanis) because of the needs of the computer industry.
The case of Cuba vs Haiti is our best example of how politics influences immigration policy – and is in turn influenced by it. Cubans, obvious antagonists (if not enemies) of their government, have enjoyed nearly free admittance for decades, and they have constituted a solid right-wing constituency in Florida that clearly determined the Presidential elections of 2000 and 2004. Haitians, by contrast, have nearly always been subjects of governments friendly to the U.S., and they have been forced to endure the most extreme privations to be allowed onto American shores. Cubans, of course, are primarily brown and Haitians are black.
We begin by reminding ourselves that White Europeans conquered this land through genocide – an original sin so overwhelming that its perpetrators could live with themselves only through justifying their crimes by demonizing the surviving Native Americans. It’s a commentary on our current debased state of public discourse that we even have to state this. White people are not indigenous here, and for four centuries our existence here has been marked by the deep anxiety of people who are themselves “Other.” We live with this painful knowledge by “othering” those who can’t or won’t fit our definitions of being American.
All white persons arriving in the New World between 1600 and 1800 faced the difficult question of why they should be so privileged over the natives. Some of them must have felt considerable shame and guilt about their participation in the theft and genocide of an entire hemisphere. It took the attraction of the evolving myth of America – a new world of opportunity, an empty land ripe for the taking – to override the natural ethical standards of common people, the vast majority of whom were desperately poor.
The Naturalization Act of 1790 proclaimed that “any alien, being a free white person, may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States.” Blacks, Indians and most women could not be citizens. Sam Smith writes, “If you were a free white male, you came, you saw, and you signed up.”
Above all, however, the myth spoke of freedom. For 250 years, these citizens were white, Christian (Protestant) and free. All three of these characteristics were necessary components of the meaning of “American.” Conversely, to be black, with few exceptions, was to not be free, and thus to not be a citizen. Indeed, when the Civil War determined that all were free, new definitions of “white” became necessary.
There were very clear political implications. From the very start, the myth encouraged Americans to identify as white, rather than as members of a downtrodden social class. And it encouraged them, once their conditions improved even slightly, to look down upon the next wave of immigrants.
For 250 years, “immigrant” was almost always a positive term that described primarily white, European Protestants who came to take advantage of the opportunities America offered, and who in turn helped to “build” the nation. The inconvenient truth that slavery was the major economic engine to build the nation was omitted from the story. The mythic image is of people who expanded the frontiers and settled the empty spaces of the rural interior. As I write in Chapter Seven of my book:
A new mythic promise of America developed, expressing fecundity, growth and the happy labor of idealized, Jeffersonian farmers: the “garden of the world.” Although this story is no more accurate than that of the cowboy, it survives because it embodies fantasies of simpler, happier times and independent ownership of land. Such ownership (for whites) was possible, of course, only if the frontier continued to expand into Indian Territory. These “sturdy” family farmers, backbone of the country in war and peace, were the spirit of democracy. Neither rich nor poor, they owed no one and exploited no one. They gave to the myth of the garden another fundamental characteristic: the West (the Midwest, the heartland) was racially homogeneous and classless. This powerful and historically unique narrative attracted millions of immigrants in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Americans were free and equal.