America Is Not a Nation of Immigrants

By | 2018-07-12T13:50:33+00:00 July 8th, 2018|
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America is a nation of immigrants. It’s a commonplace among the political class. Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), emergent leaders in the open-borders vanguard of the Democratic Party, never tire of saying so. Both object to the Trump Administration’s hard line on border control and have buttressed their calls for an “immigration reform” that would in effect re-open the floodgates of migrants from south of the border. The reason, they say, is that immigration is the defining characteristic of the nation.

It isn’t.

The “nation of immigrants” trope is relatively new in American history, appearing not until the late 19th century. Its first appearance in print was most likely The Daily State Journal of Alexandria, Virginia, in 1874. In praising a state bill that encouraged European immigration, the editors wrote: “We are a nation of immigrants and immigrants’ children.” In 1938, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said to the Daughters of the American Revolution: “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” John F. Kennedy would later use the term as the title of a book, written as part of an Anti-Defamation League series, so it is undoubtedly objective, quality scholarship.

But in 1874, as in 1938, and even in 1958 when JFK’s book was written, America was not a nation of immigrants. The women Roosevelt was addressing were not the daughters of immigrants but rather the descendants of settlers—those Americans who founded the society that immigrants in 1874 came to be a part of.

Curiously, yet another Kennedy understood this and might have a thing or two to say in protest against the “nation of immigrants” myth, even if he didn’t quite mean what he said.

During the U.S. Senate debate of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, Ted Kennedy, young Joe’s great-uncle, promised: “our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually.” Today, with far more than a million new arrivals per year, it seems Ted’s words did not age well.

The liberal lion also promised that “the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset,” and America would not be flooded “with immigrants from any one country or area.” Yet in 2014, the number of Latinos in California finally overtook the number of whites. This, too, did not age well.

“The bill will not flood our cities with immigrants. It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society. It will not relax the standards of admission. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs,” Kennedy assured his colleagues and fellow citizens. He was disingenuous at best. None of it worked out the way Kennedy promised in 1965.

The Emma Lazarus Myth
All of this is not presented simply to take a jab at young Joe, who is simply parroting the liberal line of the moment, but to highlight certain implicit truths—now disregarded by the progeny—in the assurances of his forebear.

If America has always been a nation of immigrants, why then did Ted Kennedy and others feel the need to reassure Americans that this nation would not be inundated by foreigners? This suggests that America was not, in fact, a nation of immigrants in the 1960s, and politicians aware of this spoke in this way to reassure a public equally aware of it and certainly unwilling to see America become a nation of immigrants.

Similarly, implicit in Ted Kennedy’s rhetoric is some recognition of the fact that mass immigration has the potential to change the country in ways that citizens might not like—such as by driving down wages and hurting native workers. Joe Kennedy, however, has suggested immigration is always a net good. Which Kennedy do we believe? (“Neither” is a perfectly acceptable answer.)

Then there is Kamala Harris. The freshman senator from California took the Independence Day holiday as an opportunity to claim the Declaration of Independence was signed by “immigrants” and performed the obligatory shout out to Emma Lazarus, who many liberal politicians believe wrote our immigration laws. Although Lazarus’ poem was added to the Statue of Liberty nearly two decades after the structure was dedicated, her belated verses became, at least to the Left, of more importance than the statue itself and the nation for which it stands. The idea of immigrants as all helpless “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse,” as Lazarus conceived, plays to the Left’s patronizing narrative of foreigners and citizen-subjects alike. But the problem with this conception of America’s immigrants, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) argued, is it’s a myth—and a bad one, at that.

“The 20 million-odd immigrants who arrived between 1870 and 1910,” said Moynihan, “were not the wretched refuse of anybody’s shores.” Rather, the fiery New York liberal concluded, they were an “extraordinary, enterprising and self-sufficient folk who knew exactly what they were doing and doing it quite on their own, thank you very much.”

Moynihan was right. America’s early immigrants were, with some exceptions (such as the Irish fleeing famine), Jewish tailors, Italian masons, German shopkeepers, skilled craftsmen, and artisans. It was not uncommon for these immigrants to make their fortunes in America and remigrate, either because they had never intended to stay or were induced by hardship. Those who stayed did so because they truly wanted to be American.

Lawbreaking Carries Huge Costs
To say that most of today’s immigrants do not have the qualities Moynihan adumbrated is not racist but rather an objective statement of facts, especially when 51 percent of households headed by an immigrant—legal or illegal—use at least one welfare program per year, compared to 30 percent of native households. Immigrants from Central America and Mexico, the bulk of today’s arrivals, have the highest rate of welfare use. Accordingly, the Left has shifted its politics to dangle a generous welfare-state before immigrants and illegal aliens.

Indeed, in 2017 the combined cost of education, medical, justice, and welfare expenditures attributed to illegal aliens alone amounted to $116 billion—up from $113 billion in 2013. That figure accounts for total taxes paid by illegal aliens. Moreover, it’s worth noting that amnesty for illegals would only exacerbate this problem, because amnesty would make available to them more forms of means-tested welfare benefits, and in turn increase the fiscal drain on American taxpayers.

While exceptional immigrants certainly still do arrive in the United States, progressive policy in the form of a generous welfare state has made it so immigrants no longer need to have the qualities of which Moynihan spoke.

But were America’s Founders immigrants, as Harris claims? Perhaps the simplest answer is found in the evolution of the English language in America. The term “immigrant,” Samuel P. Huntington informs us, did not come into usage in America until the 1780s—to distinguish new arrivals from the founding settlers.

Prior to the American Revolution, the English and the Dutch, according to historian John Higham, “conceived of themselves as founders, settlers, or planters—the formative population of those colonial societies—not as immigrants. Theirs was the polity, the language, the pattern of work and settlement, and many of the mental habits to which the immigrants would have to adjust.” If the Founders were immigrants, as some have mendaciously claimed, it would have been a tremendous surprise to them, because they certainly did not conceive of themselves as such.

By 1790, the population of the United States was 4 million. With the exception of a black minority and Indians, America was 60 percent ethnically English, 80 percent British—with Germans and the Dutch making up the remainder—and 98 percent Protestant. In 1797, John Jay noted specific attributes of American identity. In doing so, Jay did not simply adumbrate what “makes an American,” but made a distinction between settlers and immigrants. These are language (English), manners and customs (Anglo-Protestant), religion (Christianity), principles of government (British).

“We must,” Jay said of newcomers, “see our people more Americanized.”

Drawing from Huntington’s exhaustive demographic research, we find that while European wars kept immigration to a crawl, the overall American population increased by 35 percent between 1790 and 1800, 36 percent between 1800 and 1810, and 82 percent between 1800 and 1820. Huntington attributes the population explosion to high birth rates and fertility rates among the native-born population.

What Immigration Numbers Really Mean
Although it should be clear by now, the Left will never admit their claim of America as an historically multicultural-immigrant society is unsupportable, because that would damage their devil’s bargain with identity politics.

Concerning immigration patterns, from 1820 through 1924, 34 million new arrivals entered the United States, mostly from Europe. Throughout this period, intermittent waves of immigration were punctuated by pauses and lulls. These respites provided immigrants time to Americanize. By contrast, from 1965 through 2000, 24 million new arrivals entered the United States, mostly from Latin America and Asia, and with few if any pauses between waves. In just 35 years, America experienced nearly as much immigration as it did over a century. Nevertheless, from 1820 through 2000, the foreign-born averaged just over 10 percent of the total American population.

To claim that America is a “nation of immigrants” is to stretch a truth—that America historically has experienced intermittent waves of immigration—into a total falsehood, that America is a nation of immigrants. For the truth of the first thing to equal the truth of the other, every nation that experiences immigration may just as well be considered a “nation of immigrants.” Germans have lived along the Rhine since before Christ, yet Germany has also been swarmed by foreigners from the Middle East and North Africa. Is Germany, therefore, a nation of immigrants? A resounding nein is the answer we are hearing from Germans.

The Right Way to Live
Before America was a nation, it had to be settled and founded. As Michael Anton reiterated in response to New York Times columnist Bret Stephens: America is a nation of settlers, not a nation of immigrants. In that, Anton is echoing Samuel Huntington, who showed that America is a society of settlers. Those settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries—more than anyone else after—had the most profound and lasting impact on American culture, institutions, historical development, and identity. American began in the 1600s—not 1874—and what followed in the 1770s and 1780s was rooted in the founded society of those settlers.

“The most important fact to keep in mind when studying political changes in America is that the United States is a product of a settler society,” writes historian J. Rogers Hollingsworth.

Settlers, Anton explains, travel from an existing society into the wilderness to build a society ex nihilo. Settlers travel in groups that either implicitly or explicitly agree to a social compact. Settlers, unlike immigrants, go abroad with the intention of creating a new community away from the mother country. Immigrants, on the other hand, travel from one existing society to another, either as individuals or as families, and are motivated by different reasons; and not always good ones. Immigrants come later to be part of the society already built by settlers, who, as Higham wrote, establish the polity, language, customs, and habits of the society immigrants seek to join and in joining must embrace and adopt.

Justice Louis Brandeis would later echo Jay, declaring that the immigrant is Americanized when he “adopts the clothes, the manners, and the customs generally prevailing here . . . substitutes for his mother tongue the English language,” ensures that “his interests and affections have become deeply rooted here,” and comes “into complete harmony with our ideals and aspirations.” Only when the immigrant has done this will he have “the national consciousness of an American.”

Certainly, the Left (and a great many neoconservatives, for that matter) pays lip service to the principles that constitute what we call the American Creed: liberty, representative government, individualism, and equality. The principles of the Creed are transcendent of race and ethnicity, and it is for this reason that America has the capacity to assimilate foreigners into its society in a way that is unique to the rest of the world. One can become an American in a way that it is impossible to become a German, for example.

But the principles behind the Creed are universal because they are largely abstractions. As such, they do not tell us anything about the society that actually attracts the immigrants, nor do they tell us anything about the people whose culture fostered the Creed. This is generally as far as civic nationalists are willing to go. Either out of political expediency or for fear of being condemned as racists for merely stating that this nation has an historic demographic; upon whose culture the societal scaffolding of our nation was built, and thus laid the foundations of a Creed by which all men can live.

The “crucible in which all the new types are melted into one,” said Teddy Roosevelt, “was shaped from 1776 to 1789, and our nationality was definitely fixed in all its essentials by the men of Washington’s day.” These “essentials” are derived from the historic Anglo-Protestant, Middle American core of the nation, in whose culture we find the British traditions of law, justice, and limits upon government power, the English language, a legacy of European art, literature, philosophy, and music, Protestant moralism, and an ethic of self-control, self-reliance, and self-assertion.

In the Anglo tradition, Americans will find their customs, prayers, precepts, and political ideas; the bicameral legislature, the division of government powers, a legislative committee system, and so on. In the Protestant tradition, Americans find responsiveness of government to the people, their work ethic, individualism, a zeal for religious and cultural restoration, and a deep skepticism of centralized state power.

What the Multiculturalists Can Teach Us
The Creed did not appear spontaneously, it is the product of the culture of this nation’s historic Anglo-Protestant demographic. Millions of immigrants and their children attained prosperity in America because they Americanized and adopted Anglo-Protestant culture. There is no question that this is precisely what historically has been the case, and we can find affirmation in the words of the critics of Americanization.

Will Kymlicka, a multicultural theorist, argued in 1995 that before the 1960s, immigrants “were expected to shed their distinctive heritage and assimilate entirely to existing cultural norms.” This process of Americanization Kymlicka grudgingly labeled the “Anglo-conformity model.” “Anglo-conformity” is on target, and it is precisely this process that has benefitted both the nation and the immigrants who have embraced it. Moreover, there are two implicit truths in Kymlicka’s words: America was never a multicultural society, and Americanization was in full effect until the 1960s.

How effective? Prior to waves of sustained immigration from Latin America after the 1960s, the United States was a land of 200 million people virtually all speaking English.

The Left has fully rejected this older approach to assimilation as “un-American.” It is, to the Left, un-American to ask that foreigners respect our laws and, if they are so fortunate as to be admitted to this great nation, embrace the culture that made it all possible. According to the Left, America’s historic demographic is the only thing wrong with America at all, and if these native-born Americans will not acquiesce their forced obsolescence, then they should simply leave the country to make room for more “good Americans” who are not American at all. America, however, is “not the common property of all mankind,” as Anton has so correctly noted.

There are no patriots among those who have slandered or misconstrued the history, culture, and principles of this nation in an effort to subvert and destroy all that we call America. There are no patriots on the Left. America belongs to no one but Americans. It does not belong to the foreign masses of the world and it does not belong to the Left who, having rejected the American way, cannot count themselves among its patriots.

Correction: This article was edited slightly on July 12 to reflect that California’s Latino population overtook the white population in 2014; California did not become a majority Latino state. According to U.S. Census figures, the Golden State’s Latino population is 38 percent.

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About the Author:

Pedro Gonzalez
Pedro Gonzalez is assistant editor of American Greatness and a Mount Vernon Fellow of the Center for American Greatness.