Special Issue on Immigration
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(Swans - October 4, 2010) One of the points of emphasis in the course I teach on American history is the contention that US history is world history. Now this contention -- that US history is world history -- is not meant to be taken to suggest some sort of triumphalist narrative, one which holds that America has somehow won out over the world or has become its dominating power. We have to be careful in making such a claim or any related claims (i.e., that capitalism, with the fall of the Soviet Union, has defeated socialism, when the apparently prevailing system has fallen into such a state of folly and disrepair due to financial mischief) because they assume that history is some sort of Darwinist struggle between economic systems or nation-states. If so, then where is natural selection in such a struggle? Where is sexual selection? The application of Darwinian theory to national histories is therefore inadequate. I would even venture to say that this picture of history is more Spencerian since it assumes that national or world histories describe the perpetual victory of "fit" countries and states over less fit states or peoples.
When I suggest that American history is world history, I proclaim that America is defined by the comings and goings of the people of the world to and from the particular landmass currently settled in the northern part of the Western Hemisphere. People from other lands have either come here for a better life or sometimes even come here to work temporarily and return to their homelands. Let's look at some examples (some of which should be familiar to those who have a basic understanding of history and its patterns of immigration).
When talking of the New World, the Eurocentric view holds that Christopher Columbus discovered it and that is the end of the story. This story, however, is not true because Indians were already here. It is commonly received in natural history studies that during the Wisconsin Glaciation (roughly 30,000 years ago), humans traveled from Eurasia to North America by way of the Bering Strait, which, at the time of glaciation, was a land bridge of ice. These Paleo-Indians arrived in the Americas during this time in search of food that was in abundance. (1)
The Spanish arrived in 1492 and established colonies in the southern half of the Western Hemisphere. Before westward expansion in the late 1700s and early 1800s from the eastern states by English speaking settlers, the Spanish already had claimed present day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. The Spanish had also claimed Florida, although there were Indian tribes in the state centuries before European settlement.
Recently in Florida, a movement has emerged to establish an Arizona-style immigration law, and Rick Scott, GOP candidate for governor and a Tea Party-approved candidate, has a platform that embraces elements of the Arizona law. For example, on his Web site, he explicitly says:
Immigrants founded America and as the land of opportunity we should welcome those who play by the rules and enter our country legally. ... By definition anyone who is here illegally has broken our laws and mocked our laws. As a nation that is based on the rule of law we must reject amnesty, send those who are here illegally home and secure our borders. (2)
The problem with this position is twofold. On the one hand, it wants to acknowledge that immigrants have made America what it is, a land of opportunity, and on the other hand proclaim this nation a nation of laws. This position fails to acknowledge the fact that historically, immigration by eastern settlers to western or southern lands was not legal despite the fact that in many cases, such immigration had the sanction of the US government. The Indian Removal Acts of the Andrew Jackson era (1830s) essentially pushed Indians westward from their eastern lands. So if Scott wants to talk about the primacy or absoluteness of laws, he should talk about how the US government should have long given back lands that belonged to Indians.
On the other hand, Scott's position seems to play into present phony conjectures about immigration. Recently in the media, anti-immigrant forces have called for rejecting citizenship for individuals born here to parents who are here illegally. (3) But why stop at parents? Why not grandparents or great grandparents? That would probably be too controversial as people who dig deep into their family histories might discover the existence of a forebear who was not in America legally. But there also seems to be an assumption in this debate that European immigration -- in particular, white Anglo-Saxon protestant immigration -- is and always has been legal. So far, all of the illegal immigration talk has focused on southern states that share borders with Mexico. For Florida, immigrant streams came (and still come) from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and other West Indies islands. Strict immigration laws like Arizona's, if allowed to pass, would obviously rely upon racial profiling to work.
Other Significant Immigrant Streams in US History
As I claimed above, US history is world history because the land that encompasses the states has been the locus of the comings and goings of the world's peoples. So what are other significant instances of immigration? The following should not be taken as an exhaustive list (I have, for example, already mentioned Indians and people of Spanish descent above).
• Irish. There was a massive Irish immigration in the mid-1800s. While the Scotts-Irish were already here, mixed in with English settlements of colonial America, the Irish immigration of the middle of the 19th century was composed of southern Irish whose lives were devastated by the Great Potato Famine. The Irish made up a formidable work force in the United States during the Second Industrial Revolution, either working in factories or mills or serving as domestics. (4)
• Chinese. Massive Chinese immigration began with the Burlingame Treaty in 1868 that established diplomatic relations between the United States and China. (They were already in present day Hawaii well before the beginning of the 19th century.) The Chinese were drawn here by not only work on the transcontinental railroads but also push factors in China, such as the Opium Wars, Taiping Rebellion, and other 19th century conflicts within its borders. (5)
• Japanese. Japanese immigrants were already in Hawaii along with Chinese immigrants in the late eighteenth century. But direct immigration to the mainland of the United States was spurred by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which sought to limit Chinese immigration to the United States. As the labor pools for mining and railroad work shrank (due to limits on Chinese immigration), Japanese immigrants took these jobs. (7)
• African American. African Americans are a highly significant immigrant stream that arrived here in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries with white English colonists. As slaves, they did not come here voluntarily. As slaves and as eventually freed people, they contribute to America's culture and economic fragment in innumerable ways.
Fighting the Spencerian Image of History
In the final section, I want to question the Spencerian view of history that reduces history to the struggle and eventual conquest over a rival for resources.
The problem with this view is that it assumes too much. Not all resources in nature are gained by conquest over another individual or individuals. We know that in hunter-gatherer societies, resources were obtained through collaborative effort, such as large kills (e.g., mammoths) that required many hands. But we also know that "defeat," whether it comes at the hand of an enemy or the elements, does not always vanquish a people or species: they can just simply move on to better pastures. If there is anything that can apply to most immigration to America, it is this: that people who immigrated here were in search of a better life: to escape poverty. Draconian limits on immigration simply deny human beings the right to improve their lives. Until we address the fundamental problems of capitalism and why it requires systemic poverty or unemployment in order to function "properly," we will never hit the "immigration problem" squarely on its head.
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About the Author
Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a Ph.D. student in history at Florida State University. His main areas of concentration are the history of science, environmental history, intellectual history, the academic culture wars, and the relations between technology and culture. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewjrtaken.t35.com/. (back)