Aside from some vague references in American history classes to a "melting pot" and years of living in California where in the 1990s about one third of everyone was foreign born, I didn't have any strong awareness of the history and trajectory of immigration policies and immigrants in this country. Now that's all readily available, intelligently laid out in Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America.
From the time of the first European colonists, some people in this country -- usually landowners and large employers -- have encouraged newcomers to migrate here to do necessary work. Other people, already here and working hard, have viewed newcomers as competition. Newcomers are more easily absorbed if they are religiously, culturally and racially similar to the previous wave of immigrants -- and experience resistance to their arrival in proportion to their differences. This pattern has repeated itself cyclically from the Massachusetts colony up through the present day. According to Schrag, immigration acquired an ideal status with the founding of the United States that still frames the experience.
Anyone who has registered new voters outside citizenship ceremonies, as I have, has seen the excitement generated in that "affirmative act."
But from the nation's beginnings, immigration has also intersected with the country's original sin: white supremacy. Racial categorization of individuals served to control persons with inferior status from the earliest colonial times, first during European colonists' failed efforts to enslave Native inhabitants and then through successful importation of bound Black Africans. Race served its purpose so well it has always been a feature of how current residents understand new arrivals, sometimes with what later seem almost comic results. Hardly anyone's ancestors were considered "white" (rightful members of the dominant category) when they got here. Schrag gives a run down:
Talk about a country tying itself in knots! Though earlier generations' conundrums over the "race" of immigrants are easy to mock, people's lives were constrained, disrupted and sometimes destroyed by the policies rooted in these decisions -- as they still are by our current immigration policies.
I'll take up Schrag's discussion of where we are today in my next post.
* The headline refers to California Governor Pete Wilson's nativist political ads showing shadowy figures leaping fences that helped him win office in 1994. Republican Teabagger Sharon Angle revived the meme in losing to Senator Harry Reid in Nevada in 2010.