Saying we are a nation of immigrants doesn’t make it true

This week the Trump administration announced that it would be ending Temporary Protected Status for approximately 59,000 Haitians who fled Haiti after its 2010 earthquake. This means that Haitians residing in the country under Temporary Protected Status have 18 months to find another way to legalize their status, return to Haiti, or enter the shadows where approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants currently reside. This comes on the tail of a similar announcement made related to 5,300 Nicaraguans. Both announcements are in line the anti-immigrant stance that has defined Trump’s policy positions since his first day as an official presidential candidate when he referred to Mexicans as “rapists.”

The Trump administration’s decision was immediately met with opposition from both sides of the political aisle. This included a statement from Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez who blasted Trump for “turning his back on the values that have made our country great.”  Here, Perez is offering a variant of the so-called “nation of immigrant” defense against anti-immigrant sentiment. The gist of this defense is that, because we are a nation of immigrants, policies that target immigrant communities are antithetical to US values. There is one problem with this defense. We are not a nation of immigrants.

The defining characteristic of the United States is not immigration but settler colonialism. The first European arrivals to what became the United States were not immigrating to an empty land. They were invading lands where millions of indigenous people resided. The settler colonial society that these European arrivals created was built by the labor of enslaved Black people who did not immigrant to the United States but were, instead, forcefully taken from Africa. The unpaid labor of enslaved populations was used to sustain the agriculture economy of the South that, in turn, allowed the North to develop a strong manufacturing economy. It was settler colonialism and slavery that allowed for the development of a wealthy white elite who would become the intellectual leaders of the US War of Independence. In this way, the freedom that many take to be foundational to US society was built on the backs of people living in situations of complete lack of freedom on lands that were forcibly taken from its original inhabitants.

Of particular relevance to the above discussion about Haiti are the roles of settler colonialism and anti-blackness in the nation’s reception of the Haitian revolution that overthrew the French colonial government in 1804. President Jefferson feared the Black-led revolution in Haiti would lead to slave revolts in the US and the overthrow of its settler colonial government. In response, he refused to acknowledge their independence and instituted a trade embargo that inflicted irrevocable damage on the economy of the new Haitian society. At the same time, as a direct result of the losses inflicted on France during the Haitian revolution, Jefferson was able to buy the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the settler colonial society.

As subsequent generations arrived from Europe, a common practice  was for these new arrivals to move out West where land that had been stolen from indigenous people was available to them. This pattern would continue in subsequent generations as the United States continued its westward expansion through war, conquest and financial transactions that completely ignored the indigenous people residing on these lands. In this way, while European settlers may have considered themselves immigrants trying to fulfill “the American Dream” from the perspective of indigenous people they were invaders who would eventually push them off their land and relegate them to reservations as part of their systematic genocide.

As the United States continued its Westward expansion it also positioned itself as an imperialist force throughout the Western Hemisphere, including in Haiti. US banks directly profited off of Haiti by offering the nation high interest loans that it used to repay the debt imposed on it by France as part of the terms for its independence. When Haiti began to have difficulties in repaying these loans the United States invaded the country and took over the National Bank of Haiti to ensure loan repayment. This history of imperialism, shaped by anti-blackness, directly contributed to the poor infrastructure that made the 2010 earthquake so devastating to Haiti and led to the mass migration from Haiti that followed. This phenomenon is not unique to Haiti and is a dynamic that helps to explain a great deal of migration from Latin America and the Caribbean to the United States, including the recent Puerto Rican migration caused by Hurricane Maria.

The recent announcement by the Trump administration to send these refugees back to Haiti is not turning its back on US values. It is, instead, a continuation of a long history of exploitation of Haitians. This exploitation of Haitians is itself part of broader racializing structures produced by the settler colonialism, anti-blackness and imperialism that have lied at the core of US society since its inception. These racializing structures are foundational to US institutions and have no party affiliation. This can be seen by the fact that President Obama oversaw the largest deportation of immigrants of any presidential administration in US history. In many ways, the Trump administration is building on the legacy of the Obama administration in its continued assault on immigrant communities. Attempting to challenge this assault through a “nation of immigrant” narrative obscures these broader racializing discourses and the institutional structures within which they are embedded.

We are not a nation of immigrants. We are a settler colonial nation that was built by enslaved Black people that provided the infrastructure for imperialist pursuits throughout the Western Hemisphere and around the world. Acknowledging this reality is an important first step in getting to the root of the problem. Specifically, the root of the problem is not that the United States has failed to live up to its values. The root of the problem is that the United States have yet to directly confront the racializing structures that have lied at the core of US institutions since their creation. These racializing structures will continue to produce disposable populations until they are dismantled. The first step in dismantling them is acknowledging their existence—something the “nation of immigrants” narratives fails to do.

One thought on “Saying we are a nation of immigrants doesn’t make it true

  1. Thank you for saying and writing this! It was a wonderful/terrifying thing to read on Thanksgiving day. You say “We are a settler colonial nation that was built by enslaved Black people…”. Can we also add Chinese people and so many other enslaved workers who helped to build the railroads and so much other infrastructure in America?


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