“We are a nation of immigrants”—NOT!

It used to be that only open-borders activists and liberal sentimentalists said it. Now the entire political leadership of the country is saying it. President Bush is saying it. Sen. Specter is saying it. Even Sen. Bill “enforcement-only” Frist is saying it:

“We are a nation of immigrants built upon the rule of law.”

That cute little addition about “rule of law” is, of course, nothing but boob bait for the Bubbas (a category of persons that, in the minds of our leaders, seems to constitute about three-quarters of the country); our leaders have as much intention to enforce the immigration laws as I have to fly to Mars next week. No. The only part of the statement that counts is “nation of immigrants.”

Let us be clear about this. To say that we are a “nation of immigrants” is to say that there has never been an American people apart from immigrants. It is to put America out of existence as a historically existing nation that immigrants and their children joined by coming here, a country with its own right to exist and to determine its own sovereign destiny, which includes the right to permit immigration or not. No patriot, no decent person who actually loves this country—as distinct from loving some wacked-out, anti-national, liberal idea of this country—would call it a “nation of immigrants.” Any elected official who utters the subversive canard that America is a “nation of immigrants” should, at the least, find his phone lines tied up with calls from irate constituents.

Since the “nation of immigrants” slogan is now apparently being raised to the level of a quasi-official national slogan, it may be useful to post my critique of it, from my 1997 pamphlet, Huddled Clichés: Exposing the Fraudulent Arguments that Have Opened America’s Borders to the World. (The following is slightly modified from the original text.)

“We are a nation of immigrants.”

This—the veritable “king” of open-borders clichés—seems at first glance to be an indisputable statement, in the sense that all Americans, even including the American Indians, are either immigrants themselves or descendants of people who came here from other places. Given the above, it would be more accurate to say that we are “a nation of people descended from immigrants.” But such a mundane statement would fail to convey the thrilling idea conjured up by the phrase “nation of immigrants”—the idea that all of us, whether or not we are literally immigrants, are somehow “spiritually” immigrants, in the sense that the immigrant experience defines our character as Americans.

This friendly-sounding, inclusive sentiment—like so many others of its kind—turns out to be profoundly exclusive. For one thing, it implies that anyone who is not an immigrant, or who does not identify with immigration as a key aspect of his own being, is not a “real” American. It also suggests that newly arrived immigrants are more American than people whose ancestors have been here for generations. The public television essayist Richard Rodriguez spelled out these assumptions when he declared, in his enervated, ominous tone: “Those of us who live in this country are not the point of America. The newcomers are the point of America.”

In reality, we are not—even in a figurative sense—a nation of immigrants or even a nation of descendants of immigrants. As Chilton Williamson pointed out in The Immigration Mystique, the 80,000 mostly English and Scots-Irish settlers of colonial times, the ancestors of America’s historic Anglo-Saxon majority, had not transplanted themselves from one nation to another (which is what defines immigration), but from Britain and its territories to British colonies. They were not immigrants, but colonists. The immigrants of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries came to an American nation that had already been formed by those colonists and their descendants. Therefore to call America “a nation of immigrants” is to suggest that America, prior to the late nineteenth century wave of European immigration, was not America. It is to imply that George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant (descended from the original colonists) were not “real” Americans, but that Richard Rodriguez and Julian Simon (descended from 19th and 20th century immigrants) are.

Apart from its politically correct function of diminishing the Americans of the pre-Ellis Island period and their descendants, the “nation of immigrants” motto is meaningless in practical terms. Except for open-borders ideologues, everyone knows we must have some limits on immigration. The statement, “we are a nation of immigrants,” gives us no guidance on what those limits should be. Two hundred thousand immigrants per year? Two million? Why not twenty million—since we’re a nation of immigrants? The slogan also doesn’t tell us, once we have decided on overall numbers, what the criterion of selection shall be among the people who want to come here. Do we choose on the basis of family ties to recent immigrants? Language? Income? Nationality? Race? Victim status? First come first served? Willingness to work for a lower wage than Americans work for? The “nation of immigrants” slogan cannot help us choose among these criteria because it doesn’t state any good that is to be achieved by immigration. It simply produces a blind emotional bias in favor of more immigration rather than less, making rational discussion of the issue impossible.

To see the uselessness of the “nation of immigrants” formula as a source of political guidance, imagine what the British would have said if they had adopted it in 1940 when they were facing an imminent invasion by Hitler’s Germany. “Look, old man, we’re a nation of immigrant/invaders. First the Celts took the land from the Neolithic peoples, then the Anglo-Saxons conquered and drove out the Celts, then the Normans invaded and subjugated the Anglo-Saxons. In between there were Danish invaders and settlers and Viking marauders as well. Since we ourselves are descended from invaders, who are we to oppose yet another invasion of this island? Being invaded by Germanic barbarians is our national tradition!”

Since every nation could be called a nation of immigrants (or a nation of invaders) if you go back far enough, consistent application of the principle that a nation of immigrants must be open to all future immigrants would require every country on earth to open its borders to whoever wanted to come. But only the United States and, to a lesser extent, a handful of other Western nations, are said to have this obligation. The rule of openness to immigrants turns out to be a double standard, aimed solely at America and the West.

It is also blatantly unfair to make the factoid that “we are all descended from immigrants” our sole guide to national policy, when there are so many other important and true facts about America that could also serve as guides. For example, throughout its history the United States has been a member of Western civilization—in religion overwhelmingly Christian, in race (until the post-1965 immigration) overwhelmingly white, in language English. Why shouldn’t those little historical facts be at least as important in determining our immigration policy as the pseudo-fact that we’re all “descended from immigrants?” But immigrant advocates are incapable of debating such questions, because there is no rational benefit for America that they seek through open immigration. Their aim is to show themselves to be good people, not to strengthen or preserve America.

- end of initial entry -

A reader writes:

“We are a nation of immigrants,” or more accurately “America is a nation of people descended from immigrants,” is in fact the king of open-border clichés, as you stated so eloquently. But what is not being addressed is the ridiculousness of this pathetic syllogism.

This cliché implies that America is the ONLY nation of people ever descended from immigrants, when in fact every person who has ever existed descended from individuals—LOTS of them—who migrated in their own lifetimes. Every nation that has ever existed, or ever will exist, is a nation of people descended from immigrants.

LA replies:

Absolutely correct.

The only way to stop all this nonsense is that every time somebody says it, other people jump down his throat.


Good call. And thanks for supporting a characteristic of mine—jumping down throats—that others regard as rude.


Jumpers down people’s throats unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 29, 2006 09:30 PM | Send

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