Notes from the Classroom: Are We A Nation of Immigrants?


This semester I am teaching two sections of a class called Immigration and the American Dream. I didn’t make the title. Most of the students will be freshman and sophomores, and most of them will not be history majors. As I think about what I want this course to be, I’m grappling with the perceptions of immigration and history my students might have as they enter the classroom on the first day. To speak of Immigration and the American Dream is, I think, to conjure images of the Statue of Liberty, of poor huddled masses yearning to be free, of an exceptional nation made up of freedom-loving people from all over the world. It brings to mind a claim that is practically a part of our civic religion: America is a nation of immigrants.

In structuring the course, part of what I’m setting out to do is to help the students think critically about the “nation of immigrants” narrative. Some students may walk into the classroom with this narrative embedded in their thinking as a kind of common sense:

Of course the United States is a nation of immigrants.

I want to provoke students with the possibility that this simple phrase is not so much a statement of historical fact as it is an ideological claim deployed for specific purposes. Many immigrants have come to the United States; that’s true! But to speak of a nation of immigrants is to make a claim about what kind of country the United States is and what it means. It’s a claim about how the United States is different from, and better than, other countries.

Many historians are uncomfortable with immigration as the defining American story because of the obvious groups it appears to leave out: Native Americans and African Americans. Trying to shoehorn these groups into a nation of immigrants narrative is not an adequate solution.

The better approach might be two foreground the encounters and systems that provided the necessary foundation of mass immigration. To try to do that, I am planning to incorporate a significant amount of transnational history and settler colonial theory¹ in the course. Will it work? I don’t know! But it will be an interesting experiment.

A settler colonial framework takes the conquest of Native American lands not as a given, but as the essential and ongoing act of violence that enabled the American experiment. A settler colonial framing better enables us to see that the nation of immigrants was possible because–and only because–of violence and dispossession on an extraordinary scale. Invasion and conquest, enslavement and expropriation, preceded and accompanied migration.

Lorenzo Veracini has theorized a model in which settler colonial states tend to have a “triangular relationship” between settlers, indigenous groups, and “exogenous others.” While settler states often exclude these exogenous groups in various ways, they may also selectively include them over time, allowing them to become, in effect, “probationary settlers.” Precisely because they are imagined as having no prior claim to land, such groups can potentially be incorporated into the settler colonial polity.² For all the discrimination exogenous groups such as Irish and Italians faced, they were always potential settlers.

The Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886. It was the beacon that would greet millions of Eastern European “probationary settlers” in the era of mass immigration at the turn of the century. That same year, the United States Army continued its campaign of conquest in the west, attacking Native Americans and seizing the land that some of those probationary settlers would one day occupy. Immigration was not only the familiar flight from European squalor to the shores of American opportunity. It was invasion; it was opportunity for some and dispossession for others.

As students encounter this framework, they can hopefully begin to understand that it is not the way to understand the history of American immigration, but a way to do so. In the process, the nation of immigrants story is not debunked, but is dislodged from its commonsense status. If I’m lucky, students might get a taste of looking at the same event with two sets of glasses, and have an “Aha!” moment as it dawns on them that both sets of glasses help them see something important about the world.


¹See Patrick Wolfe’s 2001 article, “Land, Labor, and Difference: Elementary Structures of Race,” in the American Historical Review.

²Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

5 thoughts on “Notes from the Classroom: Are We A Nation of Immigrants?

  1. I am from Virginia, and our city of Hampton has an interesting statue commemorating its 400th anniversary. It has tried to acknowledge the contributions of all who were here and all who came here voluntarily or involuntarily. I believe they are concerned about at least getting people to acknowledge what has happened and seek a common future and to begin to heal our nation. This monument may be something to incorporate into your class?


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