Last week, President Obama went out on a political limb with his executive order allowing an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States. It was just more fuel for Republicans’ anti-Democrat fire, who of course responded with more threats to sue, and all the usual hateful rhetoric. What was more interesting, though, was Obama’s statement to a Chicago audience, pointing to the broader absurdities of immigration history. Talking about how each wave of immigration is met with complaints about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to immigrate into the U.S., Obama said “the only people who have the right to say that are some Native Americans.”
Someone somewhere along the way had to come out publicly and say it. Bravo for President Obama being that guy. But it’s not the first time he’s said something like this. In another immigration speech in Jan. 2013 the President said "Unless you're one of the first Americans, Native Americans, you came from somewhere else; somebody brought you,” generating a whirlwind of controversy.
Predictably, this latest comment again drew the ire of Obama’s conservative enemies (one blogger charged him with being anti-American). Of course, the statement is often said jokingly (unless you’re Indian), but when I watch the video I get the sense that he was dead serious. It is an indirect acknowledgement of the reality of Euroamerican colonialism, and on a very visceral level Americans know this. And that makes them squirm, especially those of the conservative persuasion.
Immigration debates always follow a certain logic where a hierarchy is assigned as to who is more deserving of American residency and citizenship. It is and always has been based on race, ethnicity, and class, with preference given to those constructed as white. Whoever the undeserving non-whites of the day are, they are always perceived as being some kind of threat to American society.
In the nineteenth century United States the Irish, Germans, and Italians were the undesirables. In the logic of the day, even Irish immigrants were not considered white (despite their pigmentation); they were a threat because they were seen as taking jobs from more legitimate immigrant Americans, a threat to the economic order (hmmm, sound familiar?). By the 1920s American immigration policy reconstructed all Europeans as belonging to the white race, thus elevating their desirability compared to others. By virtue of their perceived race, for example, Asians (Chinese, Indians, Japanese, and others) were deemed ineligible for naturalized citizenship.
Each era of modern American history has promulgated some kind of immigration hysteria, but up until the 1930s the U.S. allowed far more people to immigrate into the country than it deported. By 1941, the U.S. was deporting more people than it admitted. These numbers were reversed only for a short time during the 1960s, but beginning around 1970 the number of deportations increased sharply. By the 1990s the number of deportations was almost double the number of legal admissions. (Statistics taken from the book by Mae Ngai, “Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America”).
Just as during the nineteenth century, the 20th century has seen waves of hysteria governing immigration policy. Recall the Japanese internment camps during World War II, when thousands of Japanese Americans were placed into American concentration camps and had all their property confiscated. In post-9/11 America’s war on terrorism, a similar hysteria is transposed onto people of Arab ethnicity.
And despite their undeniable, centuries-long contributions to the American economy, in the hierarchy of racial undesirability brown-skinned Mexicans and Blacks have always been high up on the list, only a slight notch below the ultimate undesirables in the American landscape, those damned Red Indians. But unlike Mexicans, African Americans and Indians were the only ones who couldn’t be deported.
What’s unsettling about Obama’s statement about Native Americans and immigration is his use of the qualifying term “some.” One can only speculate about what he might have meant. I think it’s clear he meant American Indians, as opposed to people who are native-born Americans but from immigrant stock. But was he implying that everyone born in the U.S. is “native” American (as so many defensively claim), and that of those only those considered “Native American” (as in American Indian) have the right to complain?
On the other hand, did he mean that only certain American Indians have the right to complain, and if so, which ones? Only the ones with no immigrant ancestry? We can’t know for sure, but having to raise the question reminds us that the debate about racial purity and racial hierarchies is very much alive relative to American Indians. It reminds us also of the importance of shifting the terms of the debate to emphasize that American Indians’ relationship to the United States is fundamentally political, not racial.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies. Follow her blog at DinaGWhitaker.wordpress.com.