After Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from 7 muslim majority countries, American liberals and the American left went into overdrive. Protests sprung up almost immediately in airports across the country. Lawyers immediately started working and thanks to the ACLU, a stay was put in place. And across social media, people began singing the praises of immigrants and critiquing Trump’s policies.
But alas, many social media posts, especially those made by liberals, discussed America as a nation of immigrants. Others called the policies “un-american.” These statements, while surely meant as a show of solidarity with immigrants, yet again erase the histories of people of color and immigrants from American history. Native Americans and African Americans were not immigrants to the United States and to argue for the United States as a nation of immigrants, as a “melting pot,” is to discount the contributions of these groups to the development of the United States.
Even more egregious, are the comments about how these policies are un-american and that this nation was founded for and by immigrants and in the name of religious freedom. These comments ignore the history of oppression and nativism the United States was founded on.
For the class I am TAing this semester, American Revolutions, we just finished The Puritan Dilemma by Edmund Morgan. It’s a little dated, but has reminded me of some early American history that many have seemed to have forgotten. The Puritans came to America searching for their own religious freedom, but had little tolerance for the religious freedom of others. Early colonists to Virginia came to the states not searching for freedom, but searching for gold. Need I not remind you that in the quest for “rights,” these colonists killed and displaced many Native Americans.
In the early 20th century, as immigrants from Italy and China and Ireland increased, nativist impulses in the United States deepened. In the early years of the Holocaust, Jewish refugees were denied entry to the United States, including the family of Anne Frank. And Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps during World War II. These are but a few instances in our history.
This post isn’t meant to be a depressing list of America’s worst impulses: instead it is meant as a reminder that in many ways, the foundation of the United States has always been oppressive and nativist and exploitative for people of color. Freedom of religion generally meant freedom of religion for white protestant men. A country of immigrants, for a long time, referred to a country of white protestant immigrants with little tolerance for those of other backgrounds. And importantly, the rallying cry of “a country of immigrants” erases the lives and contributions of African Americans and Native Americans from American history.
As we fight the Trump Administration and anti-immigrant policies, it will behoove us to remember that we are fighting the very impulses that America was built on. As we protest, write, and tweet we are fighting for the very best version of America-a version that has never existed and may very well never exist.