The United States and Canada border crossing is shown Wednesday, December 7, 2011, in Lacolle, Quebec, south of Montreal. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz)

Who You Calling an Immigrant?

Mark Trahant

For many in Indian country, President Barack Obama said magic words, “It’s really important for us to remember our history. Unless you’re one of the first Americans, a Native American, you came from someplace else. Somebody brought you.”

Somebody brought you. Or you showed up. Even uninvited. Yet after two centuries of borders, two centuries of crossing a line on a map, who’s really an immigrant in the 21st century?

For example: Right now Indian country is witnessing and participating in an explosion of political action started by our brothers and sisters in Canada. The #idlenomore hashtag is displayed at intertribal meetings, on Facebook, and just about everywhere. But because of a nonsensical U.S. immigration policy, any member of a Canadian tribe is not a native in this land, at least in the eyes of the law. We know that’s not true. The same legal outlook is cemented in code for native people from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central or South America.

Yet we cross borders. We share stories. We share experiences. We share songs. This is a different narrative than the other “shared history” that both the president and the senators who are proposing immigration reform talk about this week.

Their story is this kind of “shared” immigration. “The Irish who left behind a land of famine. The Germans who fled persecution. The Scandinavians who arrived eager to pioneer out west. The Polish. The Russians. The Italians. The Chinese. The Japanese. The West Indians. The huddled masses who came through Ellis Island on one coast and Angel Island on the other,” the president said. “All those folks, before they were ‘us,’ they were ‘them.’ And when each new wave of immigrants arrived, they faced resistance from those who were already here. They faced hardship. They faced racism. They faced ridicule. But over time, as they went about their daily lives, as they earned a living, as they raised a family, as they built a community, as their kids went to school here, they did their part to build a nation.”

That is a story that starts somewhere in the middle, leaving out the chapters about conquest. It is a retelling of Manifest Destiny.

Nonetheless “in the coming weeks” there will again be a debate about reform that starts with that shared experience of immigration. “Throughout our history,” the president said, immigration “has only made our nation stronger. And it’s how we will make sure that this century is the same as the last: An American century welcoming of everybody who aspires to do something more, and who is willing to work hard to do it, and is willing to pledge that allegiance to our flag.”

This is where the story gets complicated; a wreck at the intersection of past and present. So much of the controversy about immigration has been promoted by those who had a narrow idea about who should be called an immigrant. “America was created by 17th- and 18th-century settlers who were overwhelmingly white, British, and Protestant. Their values, institutions, and culture provided the foundation for and shaped the development of the United States in the following centuries,” wrote Harvard professor Samuel Huntington in Foreign Policy magazine a few years ago. His idea was that immigration took a wrong turn when it let too many brown people into the United States. He called it a serious challenge to the national identity. Worse yet: Immigrants from Latin America, especially Mexico, had higher fertility rates.

The problem for Huntington and his allies is that they could no longer use force to overwhelm a population. They had to make certain that the law kept people out (even when geography and modern travel could not).

Yet Huntington’s notion is a key to understanding the politics. Those who are against immigration—any immigration reform—want to preserve the America that never was, the white, British, Protestant enclave.

Eight U.S. Senators: Charles E. Schumer of New York; Michael Bennett of Colorado; Richard J. Durbin of Illinois; Robert Menendez of New Jersey (all Democrats); and Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, John McCain and Jeff Flake from Arizona; and, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have come together with an immigration reform plan that is supposed to restore a shared notion about immigration. The group says this will happen with four main principles: border enforcement, employer enforcement, the handling of the flow of legal immigration (including temporary agricultural workers and high-skilled engineers) and a pathway to citizenship for those who entered the nation illegally.

The last one, already dismissed as amnesty, is what McCain calls “most controversial piece” because it lays down a legal path for the undocumented immigrants already here.

The anti-immigration opposition says, yes, it’s about amnesty. And securing the border. But really it’s also about protecting Huntington’s view of American culture.

Even the symbol of a border conveys the idea about protecting that culture. But people crossing the border in the desert was never the only route. “Nearly half of all the unauthorized migrants now living in the United States entered the country legally through a port of entry such as an airport or a border crossing point where they were subject to inspection by immigration officials, the Pew Hispanic Center reported in 2006. 

Of course the cynical aspect of immigration reform is the question, “why now?” Immigration, after all, is declining.

“The largest wave of immigration in history from a single country to the United States has come to a standstill. After four decades that brought 12 million current immigrants—most of whom came illegally—the net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped and may have reversed, according to a new analysis of government data from both countries,” the Pew Hispanic Center said last year.

The reasons were declining prospects for jobs, a border that was harder to cross, and Mexico’s birth rates were slowing.

So as a political problem in the United States the issue should have been narrowed to how to resolve the status of 12 million people already here.

But that was before the election—and before the Hispanic vote trounced Republicans. The New York Times figured about seven-in-ten Hispanics cast ballots for the president’s re-election.

This is motivation enough for President Obama and the Democrats. The goal is eventual citizenship for the 12 million people who are already living in and contributing to the country. (And as a bonus, most will vote Democratic.)

So after the election, Republicans had to figure out how to shift views and still pretend that they were still protecting American culture. That’s why border enforcement (again, no longer a problem) and employment enforcement are on that list.

The funny thing is that this strategy probably won’t work. The same polling from the New York Times shows that Hispanic voters do indeed want a comprehensive immigration solution, but that they are also more liberal than Republicans think they are. There’s support for gay marriage, abortion rights, and a distrust of a smaller government. “So for any Republicans crafting a strategy that focuses solely on Hispanic voters and immigration policy in order to win back the White House in 2016, they may want to re-examine this year’s exit poll results,” the Times said.

And it’s won’t end the cultural war either. Already talk show host Rush Limbaugh has said it’s up to him and Fox News to stop immigration reform. The House of Representatives is far closer to this view than their colleagues in the Senate.

So who will be welcomed as 21st century immigrants? It all depends on the cynical drive of politicians who want to win. It’s only too bad they can’t reflect on the true history of immigration, starting at the beginning of the story.

Read Obama's speech:

President Barack Obama Speaks on a Comprehensive Immigration Reform

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Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Russel Means said before his passing that America is now one big reservation. All people are now in the process of assimilating into the "new Indian". SZounds funny right?

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
You forgot to mention the 'white' indentured servant, and those fleeing religious perscution, inmates, etc. After reading President's Obama's speech, I feel that some "American's" feel entitled, and resent immigrants based on idealism's, that for whatever reasons these immigrants are depriving 'them', the "some American's" of something. Meaning that that "something" could be a chance to go to college, a job, a business opportunity... They want to blame the immigrant for their lack of achievement, when the immigrant has had to work two, three times as hard to succeed. Later...

Eulala Pegram's picture
Eulala Pegram
Submitted by Eulala Pegram on
This article has some very good points in it, but the premise it is based on contains errors. The statement "Their values, institutions, and culture provided the foundation for and shaped the development of the United States in the following centuries,” implies that the creation had its genesis in the old world. There is ample evidence that the founding father were influenced more by the League of the Iroquois in setting up their new country's government than in an Old World pattern. Both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson visited the Iroquois to observe and ask questions about the way their League worked, and the Iroquois were also invited to Philadelphia to speak before the framers of the constitution. The Mohawks used to have a document with the Constitution and the League side by side for comparison. It is time to start correcting the errors that continue to be taught as American history and tell the real historical fact of influence in this case. You might be a good place to start.

Martha Medrano's picture
Martha Medrano
Submitted by Martha Medrano on
I was a little stunned to hear the President's speech on Immigration reform. Stunned because I was seeing the man that I voted for four years ago finally appearing. Of course I feel that this new plan is too little, too late and even the Senators presenting the plan acknowledged that crossing the border illegally had fallen off significantly, but it is sure good to see Limbaug and his ilk squirm. A twist on John Wayne's words, "Pilgrim, you are the immigrant!"

Bill Brown *='s picture
Bill Brown *=
Submitted by Bill Brown *= on
I am Native American. For the other immigrants, unlike the Mexican and Latino, we didn`t print labels on every thing in their languages, we didin`t have to choose between their languages and English every time we made a call. If anything, all of the labels should be in any of the various Native American languages, depending perhaps, on the different areas of the country wher the product is being sold.. If you want the Mexicans to learn English stop Printing everything in Mexican? Spanish.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Just get to the point Articles just full of complaints no true

tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
As wrong and off-based US Federal Govt numbers are for POLITICs and because this is HOTLY CONTESTED issued with US residents and LEGITIMATE immigrants to the US, I firmly believe the actual true Illegal migration numbers living in US and the immediate ASSAULT to the US borders will be more like 20+MILLION ILLEGAL immigrants putting DEMANDS on US services, State resources, municiple organizations throughtout the US. Is not legitimate organized American Indian Nation to US Federal Govt. request for Treaty obligations to schools, health, economical resources already being strained and tested in light of US Federal Deficit numbers? Imagine the POLITICAL demands for services and resources by LATINO INTEREST GROUPS and LATINO Federal/State/Local Officials to accomodate these newly minted (ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTs) Federal/State/Local VOTERS. Where will American Indian resources be then? ?

pascal mariller's picture
pascal mariller
Submitted by pascal mariller on
Many immigrants from Mexico and Central America come from Native communities and bring more Indian blood to your country ; their ancestors lived on the American Continent centuries before any White Man stepped on the shore of what would become USA.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
So, if I say that we all are in homes tonight, it matters not if I kick down the door of YOUR home and illegally enter it, as long as I am in 'a home'? Same illogic as Obama stated in his speech? From a native perspective, one could argue that it made no real difference if they came through Ellis Island, over stay a visa, or swam the Rio Grande. But, I for one have heartburn with ‘Rewarding bad behavior’! You know, when I broke into your home, it was a mess! I cleaned it up and worked hard to make it look nicer. So, see, I 'deserve' to your house! I support a great many of ideas of reform, ....the system is broken, but to reward the bad behavior is just wrong! Steve

Kgoymah's picture
Submitted by Kgoymah on
I take issue with a Hispanic lady who was on Katie Couric last week, not sure what day. She said that they, the Spanish (Mexican's) were here before Christopher Columbus....and the Native American's? So, I know that the American Indian's did fight with them....we also took them as captives......integrated them into some of our tribes. My Great, Great, Great Grandfather was a full blooded Mexican therefore I am 1/16th Mexican, not Spanish! From what I have heard, he was used in our Tribes "SunDance", his only Son, my Great, Great, Grandfather was the first interpreter for the Indian Baptist Church out of Canada, who came to minister to my Kiowa people in SW Oklahoma. There is a book about our Aitson family, called "Light on the Mountain" written by Leonard Saunders, now deceased. As a child, I remember this man coming to interview with my Grandmother and our relatives as he was writing this book. I will try and see if I can obtain some of that interview with Katie Couric, she was talking about how strong the Hispanic population is becoming in the United States, thanks to Obama. Last week, there was a post on FB, from Tribes here in Oklahoma who were meeting to discuss future dealing with our state, at the state level. I was so glad to see that, we finally get what other minorities have known, we are stronger in number when united. I resent the fact that, my 3 Son's and Grandchildren will have to pay for the problems immigration, legal or illegal have cost these United States, not to mention lives given for this country.....or our own. May God help us all, as he doesn't see us as we see ourselves, only as His children.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

Meshika's picture
Submitted by Meshika on
All Native Americans are confused by the white man anyway. The meshika which I and all mexicans are originally come from arizona/new mexico and then founded tenochtitlan. USA and Mexico wouldnt have a border if it wasnt for America taking the land away from Mexico. So us Meshika who turn out to be more Indigenous than most Native Americans are now immigrants subject to your hate? Do you hate the UTE and Hopi people? they speak uto aztec and are our relative. Natives let the racism of the white man determine who they dislike now.

Teddy Agee's picture
Teddy Agee
Submitted by Teddy Agee on
as long as they learn english and take the test all other naturalized citizen take it is ok with me. But they must meat all the requirements to be able to gain citizenship.

candyo's picture
Submitted by candyo on
Native Americans lived here for generations before those who came here to start new lives from foreign lands. We were overrun by the people like the sinking of the Titanic. Every land has bounderies and limits. We have to protect the land from the Keystone Pipeline, fracking is fricking bad for the environment. People who have the least will be vulnerable the most. If you love clean water keep the pipeline out of our Nations. We saw the BP spill and it annihilated the Gulf with no end insight. The same will happen to our lands. There is too much at stake. Keep our country save from these greedy oil and gas perpetrators

George Beers
George Beers
Submitted by George Beers on
I am an "Immigrant" according to the US GOV My father is Mohawk/Cree Indian on his mother's side Inuit on his father's side My mother is Irish/Blackfoot on her mother's side Mohawk/Mic Mac from her father but, I was born and raised in Canada. My grandfather(mom's Dad) was born in the US, served in the Marines during Vietnam and moved to Canada to live with HIS sick father. Mom was told we are NOT American native so therefore we are immigrants who have to go through due process. Yet as we've gone through process of permanent residency, legal fees (which on 1 income in this economy we can no longer afford the "extras") we've watched as Immigrants from over seas get it all handed to them. As mom says "Not all Native Americans are created equal"

ablg234's picture
Submitted by ablg234 on
Who would want to immigrate to such a racist country that cannot get along with the original peoples of the land let alone the newcomers that are Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Hispanic and Blacks that came as slaves? What a stuff up. I am foreign by the way - still living in Africa.