As President Trump faces yet another challenge to the immigration restrictions he has tried to implement since the first month of his term in office, opponents of his efforts might see a judge’s blocking the restrictions as a victory for an idea that has been expressed repeatedly in the weeks since the original travel ban was issued: that such an order is antithetical to the United States’ identity as a nation of immigrants.
That concept of a “nation of immigrants” has been invoked since the 1950s to advance the notion of the United States as a land of opportunity, founded and built by immigrants. This narrative, according to historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, emerged within the context “of the social justice activism of the period” (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement), which was instrumental in raising moral consciousness about an immigration system that banned certain groups from entering the U.S. solely on the bases of race. As Dunbar-Ortiz noted, “What emerged to replace the liberal melting pot idea and the nationalist triumphal interpretation of the ‘greatest country on earth and in history,’ was the ‘nation of immigrants’ story.”
But, while it’s easy to see why the narrative might appeal to the President’s critics, it is not without its own critics. The main problem with the “nation of immigrants” narrative is a simple one: it’s not true.
A hint at the problems with the idea made headlines on March 6, the same day Trump rolled out his revised immigration ban, when Dr. Ben Carson’s first speech as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development described slaves as “immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships,” drawing criticism from those who noted that it would have been more accurate to describe them not as immigrants but as trafficking victims. But, as Dunbar-Ortiz posits, the American narrative about immigration has always had an aspect of masking issues such as settler colonialism, slavery and structural inequality, by promoting a benign narrative of American progress.