A Nation of Migrants

A Nation of Migrants

Thinking of the United States as a nation of immigrants may promote inclusivity in a time of rising xenophobia, but it also serves to exclude and obscure what the U.S. really is: a nation of migrants.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration Act, Liberty Island, New York, October 3, 1965

Criminals. Drug dealers. Rapists. Those are the words that Donald Trump, the leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, has used to describe Mexicans in the United States.

Trump’s erroneous claims have given voice and, more dangerously, perceived legitimacy to extreme immigration restrictionists and white nationalists, resulting in heightened levels of anti-immigrant sentiment and violence.

A common response to the Republican candidate has been to point out that, in fact, most Americans trace their roots to other parts of the world. That idea is essential to the “nation of immigrants” trope that is at the core of the country’s self-identity.

Thinking of the United States as a nation of immigrants may promote inclusivity in a time of rising xenophobia, but it also serves to exclude and obscure what the U.S. really is: a nation of migrants.

Migration has been a constant throughout human history. Historians Adam McKeown and José Moya have described it as “one of the elemental activities of our species, along with eating and reproducing.” International migration, on the other hand, is a relatively new phenomenon, and it is only since the late nineteenth century that states have used passports, quotas, and citizenship to control movement across international boundaries.

The nation of immigrants paradigm is based on the traditional notion that United States history is the story of “the peopling of North America” through one-way immigration and assimilation. It emerged out of the Chicago School of Sociology of the early twentieth century and, as Donna Gabaccia has noted, divided Americans into immigrants and “others.” The paradigm gave European immigrants a privileged place in U.S. history, while treating non-European immigrants as secondary actors (at best) and altogether excluding Native Americans and African Americans.

This began to change after the 1965 Immigration Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law fifty years ago this week. The Act ended the discriminatory national-origins quota system and created new opportunities for people from around the world to come to the United States. It resulted in unprecedented levels of immigration from Latin America and Asia, broadening the spectrum of people included in the “nation of immigrants” narrative. However, the Act also contributed to the exclusion of Mexicans by implementing the first-ever numerical cap on Western Hemisphere immigration, which, in turn, led to the growth of undocumented Mexican migration.

No other piece of legislation during the last half century has done more to shape the composition of the United States—or solidify the nation of immigrants myth. Since the Act went into effect, the number of foreign-born people in the U.S. has increased from around 10 million to 45 million, while the number of immigrants as a percentage of the total population has nearly tripled, going from less than 5 percent in 1970 to nearly 14 percent by 2015. Most of that growth can be attributed to heightened levels of immigration from Asia and Latin America. And, today, Asian and Latin American immigrants remain the fastest-growing groups of foreign-born people in the country.

While incorporating more non-Europeans into national lore is important in contemporary political terms, it does nothing to recognize the central role Native Americans and African Americans have played in shaping United States history. Nor does it account for the fact that colonization and slavery have also made America what it is today.

A more expansive nation of migrants framework cuts through the hackneyed “making of Americans” narrative and incorporates the free, forced, and coerced migrations, both internal and international, that have shaped United States history—from Native American migration before 1492 to the arrival of European colonizers; from westward expansion and the forced migration of Native Americans during the Trail of Tears to the expansion of railroads and arrival of the Asian labor immigrants who built them; from industrialization, urbanization, and the arrival of Europeans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the two Great Migrations of African Americans, the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s, and the internment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during World War II; from the fall of the Rust Belt and rise of the Sunbelt to the long history of Mexican migration to the United States and the boom in Latin American, Asian, and African immigrants since 1965.

Native Americans, Africans brought to the United States as slaves, Asian and Mexican labor migrants, African Americans, and Southeast Asian and Central American refugees, among others, are integral actors to a nation of migrants narrative.

Focusing on migration rather than immigration leads away from the “us” vs. “them” mentality that has come to dominate the vitriolic political discourse and popular debates about immigration today.

It also shifts the emphasis away from the supposed history of American exceptionalism, to a more nuanced understanding of the United States as but one of many nations of migrants.

In the process, Americans of all backgrounds might come to better understand their country not as a unique, harmonious “melting pot,” but as a place shaped by many migrations, and the encounters they produced.


Adam Goodman is a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar in the Humanities at the University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter at @adamsigoodman.


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