A (Very) Short History of Immigration

Posted on September 13, 2011


Since immigration has become such a contentious issue in American life, I thought a short history of immigration might help all parties make their arguments with greater historical accuracy, and thus persuade their opponents to fall on their swords and accept the finality of their points of view. Or, not.

To begin, we need definitions. Since “illegal immigrant” has now become a phrase almost always framed together, like “damn Yankee” here in the South, we need to know what an immigrant is, and what an illegal is.

Illegal used to be an adjective, but it is now a noun, like in “she is an illegal.”

To be illegal one normally has to have some law which defines “legal” and “illegal.” So, we need laws.

And to be an immigrant, one has to come from someplace else to our place. And an immigrant is usually thought of as coming to settle or live, unlike a tourist.

To wit, “she’s a German tourist doing the Civil Rights trail in Alabama.” Presumable, Gretchen our German tourist will return to Germany.

Gretchen is to be distinguished from Juan who is a Mexican immigrant who came to work laying bricks. He’s been doing this for five years. He’s an immigrant.

Some place great credence on the “original settlers” of a place. Like in “our ancestors were the original settlers,” and all others are Johnny-come-latelies whose claim and status is very thin compared to “original settlers.”

Here’s where we need to do some serious research. Who were the original settlers in Alabama, or America (like the United States) for starters?

About 50,000 years ago—give or take a few thousand years—there were no human beings here in America. The deer and the antelope roamed around, but no humans.

From the Christian perspective this is logical since according to the Book of Genesis man was only created a few thousand years ago and set in the Garden of Eden, not in Huntsville or Mobile or Tuscaloosa.

Man only came to the Americas fifteen or twenty thousand years ago by wandering across a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska where the Bering Straits are today during one of the many ice ages.

These hunter-gatherers were searching for game and migrated down into the Americas and became the “original immigrants.” They divided and subdivided into different cultures over the thousands of years, and it was these people who Christopher Columbus and his crew discovered in 1492.

The Indians of the islands soon grew wary of the new immigrants. They brought a few gifts, but more questions than gifts.

“Lovely necklace you have there. Gold?”

“How about some of these magnificent glass [cheap] beads for the necklace?”

And, very nice girls you have there also BTW.

The Spaniards, while they continued to sail around and explore over the next few years, came to stay. American Indians early on learned that these new immigrants were a mixed blessing at best.

Not only were they stinky immigrants, for while daily bathing was a habit of the inhabitants, it was frowned upon by Europeans, but they also demanded women, food, and gold. In return, a few priests were introduced into the islands to insure the eternal salvation of these pagans who knew nothing of Christ. Not that most of Spanish conquistadors know much of the gentle Jesus either.

These European immigrants were most assuredly unwanted for they came to rape, pillage, destroy, exploit and conquer the Americans, from the Tainos of the islands to the great Aztec and Inca empires of Mexico and Peru.

Some of the good Europeans indeed did bring Christianity and attempted to make things right during this great encounter between Indians and Europeans, but they only blunted the terrifying effects of European diseases (there were few immunities among the Indians to the great destroyers like small pox) and European ambition.

The English and French who challenged the Spanish for sovereignty and control of North America in the next two centuries behaved pretty much in the same fashion as the Spanish.

The Spanish claimed—by right of discovery, by their superior civilization, even by decrees from the Pope sitting in Rome—that they had the right to seize the land and use the Indians. The Indians were pagans and barbarians, and as such needed to be instructed and brought into civil life.

And these immigrants didn’t even come to lay bricks or nail new shingles on your roof, or clean your yards, or pick your tomatoes and strawberries in the hot lands of our world.

They came to take the land and use its people.

Over the next few hundred years the European descendants of the Spanish, French, and English continued their Old World quarrels and wrangling over power, religion, wealth, and empire in the New World.

These feuds, wars and revolutions led to new rules and laws on who were the legitimate settlers and who were the illegals.

When English and American settlers spilled west across the Appalachian mountains and south into places like Florida and Louisiana–all claimed and settled by the French and Spanish–a new wave of unwelcome settlers were introduced into the calculus of who was an illegal and what was an immigrant.

Neither the French nor the Spanish welcomed these American invaders into their spaces (forget the Indians for a while), and wars and revolutions complicated the scene.

After the American Revolution, Spain struggled to hold on to her North American colonies against encroaching American settlers who simply moved into the neighborhood, in most instances against Spanish rules and law.

Later, when Spain receded as an empire and her North American territories were inherited by newly independent Mexico, the Mexicans were no better at keeping the aggressive American settlers at bay. The gringos spilled over into Texas, carrying their slaves, their religion, and often their constitutional rights in their hip pockets. Mexicans first tried laws and regulations in the 1820s and 1830s to restrict the flow of Americans into Texas, and then to control it somehow. But it failed.

War broke out between Mexicans and Americans. Remember the Alamo? It was said to be the manifest destiny—clear to all patriotic Americans—that the boundaries of the great nation extend all the way to the Pacific.

Is turn around fair play? It is ironic that today the new “illegal immigrants” are the sons and daughters of those displaced or pushed out by aggressive “illegal” Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Who is right and who is wrong in all of this?

Suffice it to observe that in our (very) short review of the history of immigration, labels are slippery rascals (like “patriots,” “original settlers,” and “illegals” for example), and one can easily slide down the treacherous slope of hypocrisy and ignorance in making arguments for or against the tides of immigration in American history.

This article also published as an Your Turn column in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, September 2, 2011

Posted in: immigration