Who Are the Real Americans?

The plague of Trumpism is still spreading, and it’s realigning the old political boundaries of the U.S. Our culture wars used to be religious fundamentalists versus liberals and secularists. Increasingly, they’re becoming a battle of racists versus anti-racists, as you can see from this comment I deleted:

I am for a moratorium on immigration. We especially do not more people who believe in one or more gods. Ft Hood shooter, Va. Tech shooter, San Bernadino shooters, Pulse shooter, Parkland shooter, YouTube shooter, RFK assassin, Washington sniper, etc – all first or second generation immigrants, weren’t they?

Obviously, this person is a flagrant racist as well as an atheist. They cherry-pick mass killings committed by non-white people as a reason to stop immigration, while ignoring near-identical violence by alt-righters and white supremacists, even though the latter category actually constitutes the majority of extremist killings in America.

However, what I want to highlight is their choice of wording. What is a “second generation immigrant”?

The only answer that makes sense is that they’re the children of people who immigrated to the U.S. – in other words, citizens. What this person is really arguing is that there’s something illegitimate about the children of immigrants, some generational taint that disqualifies them from being “real Americans”.

This shows the illogic of racism. Why should I be judged any more or less suspect because of how long ago my ancestors came to this country? What could that possibly tell you about my moral character? Good people don’t become bad just because they’ve recently moved from one part of the world to another. By racist logic, shouldn’t the most moral and trustworthy people of all be the Native Americans whose ancestors have lived in this region of the world for thousands of years?

However, I don’t want to spend too much time dissecting the semiliterate babblings of racists. Instead, I want to discuss a more interesting philosophical question: what’s the correct way to decide who is and isn’t an American? Who has a right to be here and who doesn’t? What principle could help us decide?

You could try to draw a line between people who are in this country legally, by birth or approved immigration, versus people who’ve come here outside the framework of existing law. But that runs into the same problem that dogs libertarians: even if the United States government now sets the rules, this country was created by settlers who conquered the land, dispossessing and killing Native Americans and stealing their land to make it their own property. What law permitted that? The decree of a king who’d never reigned in America? What gave him the right to decide that regardless of the wishes of the people who actually occupied the land at that time?

If might makes right – if the original white settlers established their right to be here by getting away with their crimes – then, to be consistent, you should make the same argument for modern-day migrants. If they slip across the border, if they find jobs in America and successfully create a life for themselves, then they should be allowed to stay. Conservatives and white nationalists decry this solution as “amnesty” and oppose it fiercely. But then, why do they offer amnesty to the original American colonists whose deeds were, by any reasonable standard, far worse? Doesn’t their argument lead to the conclusion that white ownership of America is and has always been illegitimate, and we should give Native Americans their stolen property back and put them in charge again?

On the other hand, Native American civilization on this continent wasn’t peaceful or uncontested either. They had their own empires and their own conquests, even if our knowledge of them is fragmentary. Making the problem worse, there’s also been gene flow between populations. There are few, if any, “pure-blooded” Native Americans alive today – or, for that matter, “pure-blooded” white people or black people. Millions of people have a mixture of different ethnicities in their ancestry. Who stays and who goes? Where would we draw the line?

It’s not just the U.S. that has this problem. Every country on earth has been touched by colonialism and conquest. No one can claim to be the pure or uncontested owners of any slice of land on this planet. And that puts us in a dilemma between two positions that both seem unworkable.

To say that people have an absolute right to be wherever they currently are, no matter if that land was violently taken from the original inhabitants, requires us to endorse all the historical evils that led up to this point. That seems like an untenable position. It means that the deeds of slave traders, colonizers, emperors and conquistadors throughout history are retroactively OK because they got away with it.

On the other hand, it’s even more untenable to say that any land taken through conquest is illegitimately owned and has to be given back. It would be flat-out impossible to redistribute the world to reflect the way we think history should have happened. In some cases, there are no more “original owners” to whom land could be returned. Even if there were, there are now tens of millions of people who only exist because history unfolded as it did – people who were born on the land they currently inhabit and have no cultural ties to any other place. Where could they go that would be any more legitimate?

This is why I find the U.S. solution of birthright citizenship appealingly simple: if you were born here, you have as much right to be here as anyone else. It cuts through the Gordian knot of morally irrelevant arguments about whose ancestors showed up first. (Predictably, racists dislike birthright citizenship and want it repealed, although that’s not likely as it would require a constitutional amendment.)

However, it doesn’t solve the entire problem. As we’re seeing now, racist governments can still try to close the borders and keep out immigrants in a bid to prevent new children from taking advantage of birthright citizenship. The answer, as I’ve written before, is open borders. This isn’t just because free movement should be a human right, but because the only way we’ll erase the legacy of historical dispossession is by allowing people to migrate and live where they choose. Over enough time, this will lead to communities of people living where they are because they want to be there, not because someone else’s ancestors conquered their ancestors or vice versa.

You could call it “land secularism”. Just as our temporary control of the government doesn’t give us the right to force our religious beliefs on anyone else, our temporary control of a patch of land doesn’t give us the right to decide who is and isn’t allowed to live there in perpetuity. Trying to cure the errors of history in a single generation would be a more disruptive upheaval than even those ancient empires committed, but this way, we can at least ensure their conquests won’t shape human civilization for all time.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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