My ancestors were not welcome in America. You can be nearly certain that yours weren’t either.
We often describe ourselves as a nation of immigrants. This is true, but incomplete, much as the description of your great-uncle Clarence as “inventive” downplays the illegal whiskey still he refined to perfection.
We are not so much a nation of immigrants, as a nation of immigrant panics. Your ancestors and mine, if they were among the luckier newcomers who immigrated by their own will, arrived in dire circumstances, driven by want, violence, or fear of the noose. No one at the peak of success, swimming in the admiration of their peers, sits before the fire one night with a brandy and decides to move their family to a chaotic, hostile wilderness. Immigrants arrive here without much promise, to the fear and consternation of the upper-classmen who watch them disembark. America is a nation of hungry, determined losers. Out of misery and perseverance, they built the most powerful nation on earth.
Every wave of immigrants, from the Quakers in New England to the babies we’re ripping from their mothers, have inspired fear among those already present. Immigrants bring change, and the direction of that change is beyond our control. Our distant grandfolk resemble those children in cages far more than they resemble us. Deep down most of us deny that reality and work hard to suppress it.
The bulk of my known ancestors were Scots-Irish immigrants whose arrival inspired one of Colonial America’s earliest immigrant panics. Immigrants are assigned responsibility for crime, disease, social breakdown; basically anything bad happening in contemporary society. My ancestors were no exception. Prominent 18th century preacher Cotton Mather called my people a “formidable attempt by Satan and his sons to unsettle us.” Citizens of Worcester in 1740 burned down a church they were trying to construct, inspiring the Scots-Irish to move along.
Itinerant Anglican minister, Charles Woodmason, endeavored to bring the light of true gospel and civilization to the Scots-Irish immigrants flowing into Pennsylvania’s back country in the 1760’s. Here’s how he described them:
They are very Poor — owing to their extreme Indolence for they possess the finest Country in America, and could raise but ev’ry thing. They delight in their present low, lazy, sluttish, heathenish, hellish Life, and seem not desirous of changing it. Both Men and Women will do any thing to come at Liquor, Cloaths, furniture, etc. rather than work for it — Hence their many Vices — their gross Licentiousness[,] Wantonness, Lasciviousness, Rudeness, Lewdness, and Profligacy they will commit the grossest Enormities, before my face, and laugh at all Admonition.
By some miracle, this sluttish rabble produced seven of the country’s Presidents, and an innumerable mass of her greatest generals. You’re welcome.
It seems theoretically possible that immigrants could cause problems, though beneath all the hysteria, the fear-peddlers struggle to find honest, verifiable proof. Down through history, the worst consequences of mass immigration have risen from the neurotic panics they inspire among established residents.
Evidence tells us that new immigrants are essential to our economic vibrancy. Immigrants make our nation wealthier, more powerful, more inventive, and generally more successful. They are less likely to commit crimes or live off the social safety net , and twice as likely to launch new businesses than previously settled residents. Between the proven benefits of immigration and our own immigrant heritage, you might expect we’d learn to welcome the next boatful of teeming masses. You’d be wrong.
This is the unspoken American Dream, embraced by centuries of immigrants to this country: If I work hard and experience success, one day my grandchildren can blindly persecute people just like me. Key to this American Dream is the central challenge of so-called “assimilation” – becoming white people.
In America, new arrivals are dropped into a kind of cultural purgatory, an ambiguous container in the cramped nether land between whiteness, which we value, and blackness, which we pretend not to punish. The first skill of “assimilation” is learning to place yourself on the white side of this life and death divide, which is more difficult than it sounds. “Whiteness” and “blackness” in our manner of usage, are mysterious, elusive concepts to most new arrivals.
Drop the vowel from the end of your name and stop eating those garlicky foods. Lose the burden of the fourteen silent consonants your name carried across the water. Christmas is on December 25. Join a megachurch. Have a hamburger. Adopt clothing, music, manners and entertainment habits that look more like white people than black people. Learn how to use the n-word. From the “Lace-Curtain Irish” to today’s aspiring assimilators, learning to build an identity on the white side of our lethal color line is the true gateway to freedom in America.
This American hazing ritual keeps us on an endless treadmill of immigrant panics. Meanwhile, we are quite lucky that we can attract immigrants without having to offer enticements. No one can promise that our luck won’t run out. The only thing worse than a million immigrants trying to enter our country is none of them.
We have made it nearly impossible for people to immigrate to the US legally without an existing family connection. Apart from a few thousand elite visas, you literally have to win a lottery to come here legally without a family tie. We closed the Golden Door a very long time ago, relying since on illegal immigration and refugees to fill our need to for new Americans.
Since we rolled up our welcome mat and barred the door, immigrants have found innovative ways to come here and make us stronger. Chinese invented the “paper sons” to skirt the Exclusion Acts. Some of the more fortunate German Jews fleeing Hitler found smugglers to help them across our northern and southern borders. Our own First Lady, Melania Trump, is an example of the “innovative” techniques used to escape our immigration restrictions. It appears that our First Lady somehow leveraged a very rare “genius” provision, to gain a visa. During the campaign Trump promised full disclosure of the details, but as with every other promise of disclosure from the Trump’s, it was a lie. The legitimate explanation of Melania Trump’s immigration remains hidden somewhere with Donald’s tax returns and the hush-money contracts for his hookers. She may not have crossed burning sands to reach our borders, but you can be certain Melania Trump is paying for her shot at the dream.
Though her immigration on a so-called “Einstein Visa” might have been shady, her commitment to become a Real American™ appears all-too sincere. By 2011 Melania Trump was on the Joy Behar show repeating the claims of the racist Birther conspiracy. Welcome to white America, sister.
Very quietly over the past decade, a change occurred which may have troubling long-term implications. Mexican immigration to the US has not merely halted, it has reversed. Annually we now lose more Mexicans than we gain. Their loss has been cushioned, so far, by increased immigration from Central America. How much longer will this continue?
Global poverty is in steep, long term decline, right along with fertility rates. Despite TV news reports to the contrary, the world’s supply of teeming masses is thinning while competition for immigration grows stiffer. On a per capita basis, Canada, Australia and New Zealand already accept far more immigrants than the US. Most European countries have a higher proportion of foreign born than the US. We rank a tepid 65th in our per capita foreign born population. Make no mistake, if they could get there on foot, many of those desperate Salvadorans would much rather live in frigid Toronto than in Phoenix.
To appreciate what this new global competition means for us, let’s imagine for a moment that as a nation, it’s time to pick team members. You have a choice between some supremely comfortable current American, their skin soft and pale, bathed in the electric glow of Fox News. They have a college education, a job in their grandfather’s company, three cars and a 3500 square foot home.
Or you could choose a Honduran laborer, who left their tiny cement-block apartment when the gangs promised to murder them, and the police refused to protect them. They scooped up their family and their meagre savings, setting out toward the unknown El Norte. They stand before you speaking only Spanish, uneducated, burned by the sun, character forged by hardship, determined, penniless and hopeful.
Who will do more to build this country? Who will work harder, whine less, take more chances, seize more opportunities? You know the answer, and so does that Fox News viewer. That’s what perhaps scares them most about those brown faces on TV. Those families we’re breaking apart are more truly American than we are. They will endure. They already have.
These new immigrants whose children languish in cages are who we used to be. Chances are, our immigrant forebears would pick them over us.
God Bless America.