Does anybody remember we are all immigrants to this country? I mean this literally. There is no one living in America today who is not either an immigrant or a descendant of an immigrant. I think we should send the whole lot of us back to Europe or Africa or from wherever it is we all came.
It is true, of course, that each of us may be closer or farther away generationally from the person who actually immigrated. I’m a second generation Jew whose grandparents immigrated to this country about a hundred years ago seeking a better life for themselves and their children. I think of myself as a full-blooded American, whatever that means, and have benefited from their decision.
Others of us may be descended from those who came earlier or later. For example, Marco Rubio’s parents were immigrants from Cuba, and his father may have been undocumented for a few years. John McCain, for his part, has a Scottish and English heritage, with an eighteenth century immigration from the Scottish side. I have a colleague at work who can actually trace his line back to two signers of the Declaration of Independence.
But even the American founders, of course, were descendants of immigrants or immigrants themselves. George Washington’s grandfather, John Washington, immigrated to the Colony of Virginia in 1657. One of John Adams’s grandfathers immigrated to Massachusetts in about 1638. James Wilson, for his part, was born in Scotland. Alexander Hamilton was also born outside the colonies in Nevis, which was in the British West Indies. And of course none of these founders were United States citizens, anyway, until the Constitution was ratified by the sates; prior to that moment, they were all citizens of what were independent states (e.g., Virginia, Massachusetts) and before that simply subjects of British colonies.
Of course, before any of their ancestors came here through the European colonization of the Americas, there were native peoples already living here. If anyone is native to the lands it would be them. Even they are descendants of earlier ancestors who migrated from the EuroAsia continent across the Bering Strait some 13,000 years ago.
Of course, Christian European colonizers and philosophers justified the taking of America lands by Europeans because natives weren’t Christian, didn’t obey the laws of nature, or because the land was “vacant,” “unsettled,” or “uncultivated” and was therefore available to be taken as property, since God had given the world “in common” (more on this topic in my forthcoming book).* The United State Supreme Court, by the way, adopted the view that “discovery” entitled Europeans to American lands.**
What’s the point? Everyone in America is an immigrant. The only difference is the length of time each of our family lines have been here. It is true that the debate today focuses on “illegal aliens,” people who came to this country without approval of our law. Many immigrants, of course, came here legally with approval of the United States.
I realize that, as a country, we may need some set of laws to differentiate those who can come to these lands legally from those who came illegally. National sovereignty implies the right to determine who may enter. But as we continue to make such laws, let’s at least remember that none of us have original rights to the land, except perhaps those who descended from those who migrated here across the Bering Stait; for them, the land really was unsettled.
Whether our families were here one, two, three, or fifteen generations hardly gives us more of a primary or natural right to benefit from the great wealth of this country’s natural resources. The notion that somehow those of us who live here today deserve all the benefits that this great country can afford more than other people is a fiction and a moral conundrum we all have to live with, but not one that we have to embrace with relish or suppress from memory. For me, remembering that we are all ultimately immigrants in one form or another is a reminder to at least approach this topic with compassion. And it is a reminder that the larger more troubling issue is not immigration per se, but having sufficient natural resources and stable governments in the world to give all peoples a great quality of life with the protection of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
*See my forthcoming, Beyond Liberty Alone: A Progressive View of Freedom and Capitalism in America.
**Robertson, Lindsay G. Conquest by Law: How the Discovery of America Dispossessed Indigenous Peoples of Their Lands. Oxford: Oxford University, 2005.