There has been a lot of talk recently about immigration in the American news. It has always been in the news to some degree, but the issue has ballooned in recent months, especially in regards to illegal immigration and refugees. Well, regardless of which side of the issue you take, there is something important to remember: we are a a nation of immigrants. This is an indisputable, verifiable fact!
Open any American history textbook for any grade (typically starting at fourth grade and running through the collegiate level) and it will start the story of American history – for both North and South America – by telling how millennia ago the first humans to set foot on American soil came over the now water-covered Bering Land Bridge from Siberia to Alaska. From there, these first immigrants spread across two continents and created many unique civilizations, including the Mayan, Inca, and Aztec Empires. In the land that is now the United States, the tribes of Native Americans spanned the whole area, including groups that created confederacies (Powhatan and Iroquois Confederacies) and those that created vast trade empires (Cahokians).
Then, in 1492, Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. However, that is a misnomer, as the Native Americans came first and there is ample evidence that the Vikings had previously reached the Canadian and New England shores. That act triggered the first wave of European immigration in the forms of explorers and government officials to manage the new territories. This first wave was then followed by the families of those individuals for the Spanish and French-held territories.
The English-held lands, later to become the original 13 states of the United States of America, were managed differently. Instead of leaving explorers to chart the new lands, whole families were sent to settle. Some were part of Crown colonies, such as Jamestown and the lost colony of Roanoke, that formed the Southern plantations which retained the most “Britishness.” Others came to escape religious persecution. That is how the Puritans sailed on the Mayflower to create the colony at Plymouth Rock. That is why the British Catholics gained a charter to settle Maryland. And that is how William Penn led the Quakers to settle the colony of Pennsylvania. All left because the Church of England wanted them to leave or convert.
In later years, more immigrated to America. Famous examples include the mass immigration of the Irish after the Potato Famine or Italian-Americans after Italy’s Unification, an event that focused on people leaving the poorer Southern Italy and Sicily regions. And others left as refugees when war and political actions forced them to leave, such as White Russians (those loyal to the Czar) and the Jews of Europe in the 1930s. In the latter case, many of those refugees were turned away and were later killed in the Holocaust. The S.S. St. Louis and its refugees, which were famously turned away from both the United States and Cuba after all had been issued visas, is a famous example of forgetting America’s roots. And let us not forget those trying to leave war-torn lands in the modern era, such as the Bosnians in the 1990s and Somali in the 2000s and 2010s. And let us not forget how the Native Americans were affected by all of this through loss of their lands, way of life, and spread of illness.
Each group of these people brought unique qualities with them that makes our nation, as many textbooks call it, a mixing bowl of peoples. People of each group created inventions that made life better for all (for example, a Russian immigrant founded Google, a Scotch immigrant founded AT&T, a Taiwanese immigrant founded Yahoo, and German immigrants founded Anheuser-Busch; did you notice these are all household brand names?). Some even gave their lives in times of war and were honored with the highest possible honors (see this list of foreign-born Medal of Honor recipients). Others immigrated and contributed to scientific knowledge, such as Albert Einstein, a German-born Jew. Because of the diversity, America is a great nation and holds a unique place in the world. Let us not forget this.
For more information:
- This amazing Super Bowl 2017 Commercial from Anheuser-Busch showing its founders’ roots.
- An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience by Jerre Gerlando Mangione
Island of Hope, Island of Tears by David M. Brownstone, Irene M. Franck, Douglass Brownstone
Colonial Latin America by Mark A. Burkholder, Lyman L. Johnson
Voyage of the Damned by Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan-Witts
Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust by Sarah A. Ogilvie, Scott Miller
Or to see what happens when one group of Americans kicks another out of the country, try:
Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World by Maya Jasanoff
Or to see what it is like to be interned as an enemy alien in the nation you call home (AKA FDR’s Executive Order 9066 signed 75 years ago yesterday), try:
- The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II by Jan Jarobe Russell, reviewed in 2016
- Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
Branded: How Italian Immigrants Became ‘Enemies’ by Lawrence Distasi
Or to be placed in the shoes of a refugee, try the following novel:
And yes, I have read most of these books. Only three are future reads, including one soon-to-be-published.
Feel free to ask any questions or share your thoughts, as long as it is done in a respectful manner.