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A Native view of immigration

Published Nov 22, 2006 12:34 AM

Mahtowin Munro
WW photo: Liz Green

The following talk was given by Mahtowin Munro, a member of the Lakota Nation and co-leader of United American Indians of New England (UAINE), at a Nov. 18 Boston Workers World Party forum entitled “The Struggle for Indigenous sovereignty and immigrant rights.”

I am going to be talking about immigration tonight from a North American Native viewpoint. Many of us who are Native to this country have been outraged as our sisters and brothers from Mexico, Central America and South America have come under increasing attack by the right wing.

We are deeply alarmed by the existence of white vigilante groups such as the Minutemen, and by the stated intention of the U.S. government to build a wall separating the U.S. from Mexico.

As Indigenous peoples, we have no borders. We know that our sisters and brothers from Mexico, Central America and South America have always been here and always will be.

The immigrant nation that is the U.S. has a short memory and is in denial of its historical facts. This government is descended from immigrants who came here and took our lands and resources, either by force, coercion or dishonesty, and banned the religions, languages and cultures of the original Indigenous peoples of this continent.

In the various discussions of so-called “illegal immigrants,” one historical fact is always overlooked: America’s own holocaust directed against African and Native people, carried out by uninvited foreigners who came to these shores and took everything they could.

Surely the deaths of tens of millions of Native and African people at the hands of marauding, manipulative European immigrants during a 400-year span should be worth bearing in mind.

U.S. history brims over with brutal, bloody instances of inhuman European immigrant actions that are far removed from the basic aspirations so often associated with today’s immigrants. The undocumented workers today in this country dream of a better life and seek to escape the poverty and repression engendered by U.S. imperialism.

Unlike the earlier immigrants and the perpetual forces they set into motion, I highly doubt that today’s immigrants are plotting to seize others’ property, kill babies and earn bounties based on body parts brought back from raids.

Consider that, in the late 1630s, the British wiped out nearly every man, woman and child of the powerful Pequot tribe of southern New England in retaliation for conflicts arising out of fur-trade struggles. A few years later, Dutch authorities in charge of the settlement of “New Netherland” on the island of Manhattan carried out nighttime raids against the local Indigenous people, where infants were torn from their mothers’ breasts and hacked to pieces in the presence of their parents.

Legislation approved in Massachusetts and elsewhere in New England in the 1700s authorized bounty payments for scalps or heads of Indians, young and old.

As it turns out, the immigrant authorities were just beginning their efforts to obliterate “the savages,” as American history chronicles.

Some of the best-known names in American history are dripping with prejudice and arrogance aimed at Native people. Not only did Thomas Jefferson—a holder of hundreds of Black men, women, and children—live a life of ease on his great plantation as a result of that slave labor. He also was convinced that the best solution in dealing with Native peoples was to drive all of us west of the Mississippi.

The war-hero president, Andrew Jackson, was one of the most despicable Indian-haters on record. He made no bones about his racism and championed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced the Cherokee and other southeastern Native peoples from their homes and caused thousands of them to die on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma.

The 19th century in particular is rife with accounts of the foreign intruders’ invasions of Indian country, especially in the Southeast and West, and the carnage that resulted. The December 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee of over 300 unarmed Lakota children, women and men by the U.S. Army is perhaps the best-known of what were countless massacres carried out by the immigrants and their army.

The wholesale abuse of Native peoples continues to this day, and it springs from the same destructive capitalist practices that were brought here by foreigners long ago.

As I listen to some people call other people “illegal” immigrants, I often wonder: How could it possibly be that their ancestors were considered to be “legal” while so many immigrants now are considered “illegal”?

These comparisons between past and present miss a crucial point. So few restrictions existed on immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries that there was no such thing as “illegal immigration.”

For instance, the government excluded less than 1 percent of the 25 million European immigrants who landed at Ellis Island before World War I, and those mostly for health reasons.

We begin with a simple fact: We Native peoples had no immigration policies. When the Europeans began arriving and stealing our land from us and massacring our people, we did not have them take a citizenship test. We did not have them pass through Ellis Island. We did not have quotas for how many could come into the country.

So, when did the U.S. begin to have immigration policies, and what were those policies?

For many years, whiteness was the prerequisite for citizenship. The first naturalization law in the United States, the 1790 Naturalization Act, restricted naturalization to “free white persons” of “good moral character” once they had resided in the country for a specified period of time.

The next significant change in the scope of naturalization law came following the Civil War in 1870 when the law was broadened to allow African Americans, whose ancestors had been forced to immigrate here in slave ships, to become naturalized citizens.

During the 1800s, male Chinese immigrants were excluded from citizenship but not from living in the United States, because their labor was needed by the big railroads. Female Chinese immigration was severely curtailed. Congress in 1882 passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was a virtual ban on further Chinese immigration. The Chinese immigration ban was not repealed until the 1940s.

In the early 1900s, Japanese immigration was limited as well, but the Japanese government continued to give passports to the Territory of Hawaii, where many Japanese resided. (At that time, Hawaii was not yet a U.S. state.) Once in Hawaii, it was easy for Japanese to continue on to settlements on the West Coast, if they so desired.

An 1882 law banned the entry of “lunatics” and infectious disease carriers. After President William McKinley was assassinated by a second-generation immigrant anarchist, Congress enacted in 1901 the Anarchist Exclusion Act to exclude known anarchist agitators. A literacy requirement was added in the Immigration Act of 1917.

During the 1920s, the U.S. Congress established national quotas on immigration. The quotas were based on the number of foreign-born residents of each nationality who were already living in the United States.

In 1924, the Johnson-Reid Immigration Act limited the numbers of southern European immigrants. Italians were considered not “white” enough and an anarchist menace. The numbers of Eastern Europeans were also limited because Jews, who made up a large part of those leaving that area, were not “white” enough and were considered to be a Bolshevik menace.

I should mention that we Native people were “naturalized” and “granted” citizenship by the U.S. government in 1924.

In 1932 President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the State Department essentially shut down immigration during the Great Depression.

In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act revised the quota system again. This act removed overt racial barriers to citizenship but solidified inequalities. Most of the quota allocation went to immigrants from Ireland, the United Kingdom and Germany who already had relatives in the United States.

This law was also particularly aimed at preventing socialist, communist or other progressive immigrants from entering the country. The anti-”subversive” features of this law are still in force.

During all these years, the entire Western Hemisphere, including Mexico, was exempted from immigration regulations. That changed in 1965 with the Hart-Cellar Act, which abolished the system of national-origin quotas.

A last-minute political compromise introduced, for the very first time, quotas for Mexico and the rest of the Western Hemisphere. This law racialized “illegal aliens.” A hierarchy of those deemed worthy and those deemed unworthy of becoming an “American” became increasingly deeply rooted.

Several pieces of legislation signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 marked a turn towards harsher policies for both legal and “illegal” immigrants. These acts vastly increased the categories for which immigrants, including green card holders, can be deported. As a result, well over 1 million individuals have been deported since 1996.

In short, the notion of “illegal aliens” is a construct, an invention of the racist U.S. ruling class. The dominant powers for centuries codified Indigenous, African, Chinese and other people as essentially not “American.”

The revolting use of the word “illegal” as a noun is a linguistic way of dehumanizing people and reducing individuals to their alleged infractions against the law.

I do not have time tonight to discuss the details of the economic and social conditions created by U.S. imperialism and neoliberalism that have forced our sisters and brothers from Mexico and many other countries to come to the U.S.

The United States is the true culprit in this situation through the robbery of the Mexican people, which began with the theft of their land and has continued with economic policies like NAFTA, which have destroyed the economy that sustained thousands of families, forcing them into exile and particularly into emigrating to the U.S.

As an aside, I want to explain what I mean when I say that the U.S. government stole land from the Mexican people, because this is rarely discussed in school or anywhere else. First of all, the land of course belongs rightfully to Indigenous peoples. Later, the various colonial governments claimed territory.

The “Mexican Cession” is a historical name for the region of the present-day southwestern United States that was ceded to the U.S. by Mexico in 1848 under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo following the Mexican-American War.

The cession of this territory from Mexico was a condition for the end of the war, as U.S. troops occupied Mexico City and Mexico risked being completely annexed by the U.S.

The United States also paid the paltry sum of $15 million for the land, which was the same amount it had offered for the land prior to the war. Under great duress, Mexico was forced to accept the offer.

The region of the 1848 “Mexican Cession” includes all of the present-day states of California, Nevada and Utah, as well as portions of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. Note that the United States had already claimed the huge area of Texas in its Texas Annexation of 1845.

So we see that the U.S. literally stole millions of acres of land from the Mexican people, then established arbitrary borders such as the Rio Grande, and now hunts down those who dare to cross those borders.

The U.S. government has now escalated its war against the Mexican people, whether they are in Mexico or in its Diaspora, by approving $2.2 billion to begin construction of what is to be a $6 billion apartheid wall between the two countries.

At the same time, massive raids are being carried out by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security. In cities across the country, ICE is trying to push immigrant workers further underground and scare them away from organizing and fighting for their rights.

Local and state governments, most notably in Pennsylvania and Arizona, have been passing vicious anti-immigrant legislation. I just read on the Internet the other night that the Bush administration and the Justice Department now claim the right to hold any non-U.S. citizen indefinitely, without the right to a trial in a civilian court.

In recent years, we have also seen how attacks against even documented immigrants, particularly Muslims, have been carried out under the guise of “homeland security.”

So all in all, there is a calculated attempt to create a thoroughly intimidating and threatening climate for immigrant workers, especially the undocumented.

Further, racists continue to push their “English-only” campaigns and to oppose bilingual education. I feel outraged by these “English-only” campaigns. Is English the Native language of this country? Generations of Native people were beaten for speaking their Indigenous languages and forced to learn English. Instead of English-only, maybe we should be insisting that people speak Mayan or Cherokee or Wampanoag.

Well, things were looking pretty bleak for a while. It had appeared that the capitalist ruling class and its representatives in the U.S. government had the upper hand completely, and that the mass struggle was dormant.

But then came the magnificent immigrant rights demonstrations of last spring. These were led by workers from Mexico and Central America and South America, but they were joined by Caribbean, Asian, African and other allies. This development shook the ruling class. It frightened and deeply worried them. It gave a glimpse, even in the midst of periods of reaction, of the crucial struggles that are on the horizon.

Step by step, day by day, this movement will grow. The government can pass anti-immigrant laws but those laws will be repealed in the streets. It was the earlier heroic struggles of immigrants in the U.S. that led to the historic International Women’s Day as well as May Day. Without a doubt, immigrants will make that kind of history again.

Let’s ask some basic questions here: Why does the U.S. need immigrant workers? This country depends on immigrants being the most exploited workers, the ones who work in sweatshops and keep the luxury hotels running.

Without immigrant labor, the economy would collapse. So why the witch hunt? To drive immigrants further underground and to manipulate this reserve army of labor. The corporations want to super-exploit immigrant workers. They just don’t want to be responsible for paying them the value of their labor or for providing benefits, services and basic democratic rights.

The corporations and the government are using the anti-immigrant legislation to mask the truth about the crisis looming for U.S. workers and the huge financial debt of the government.

This criminalization is also aimed at the rising tide of change developing throughout Latin and South America, from Venezuela to Oaxaca and Chiapas, a tide of resistance like that of the people of Cuba to U.S. global policies.

Capitalism thrives on the scapegoating of certain groups of people, which they use to try and divide us as workers. They want to keep us divided amongst each other because they want to prevent us from uniting to fight back against their bloody-handed system.

This is not the first time that immigrants have been scapegoated. Irish immigrants of the mid-1800s were vilified. During the 1800s, Chinese workers in the western part of the U.S. were subject to the most virulent racism, including lynching, and endured the most brutal working conditions.

From World War I until the 1920s, the government conducted anti-Jewish and anti-Italian reactionary attacks, including the Palmer Raids. Former President Theodore Roosevelt and many other prominent citizens of his era proclaimed their fears that the Anglo-Saxon was an endangered species due to immigration and to higher birth rates among the immigrants.

On the West Coast, Japanese immigrants were interned in concentration camps during World War II, and there were widespread police attacks on Chican@ youth in California during the same era.

The current attacks against immigrants must be seen as attacks on all workers. This current assault on immigrants is just another tactic—like racism, homophobia and sexism—that the ruling class uses to pit workers against each other. The only winners when this happens are the bosses.

Native people have dealt for centuries with the terrorism of the U.S., Canadian, Mexican and other colonizing governments. I urge all of you here tonight to consider the knowledge that we have gained during that time.

If we had unified early on, worked together rather than as separate nations, we may have prevailed and pushed the Europeans right back into the Atlantic Ocean.

When we unite struggles, when we build a movement, we must have sensitivity for each other’s struggles. We must respect the right to self-determination of all oppressed nations. That means, for example, that only Indigenous peoples can decide what our goals are in the struggle and how we should best fight to achieve those goals. But others can help and support us while having respect for our leadership, and this is what happens at National Day of Mourning. And we cannot subordinate the fight against racism to any other struggle. That is at least in part why today’s antiwar summit in Harlem is so important.

At the same time, while we are involved in the struggle, we learn about each other, and learn to trust each other, and become internationalist in our outlook.

That is the kind of unity perspective we will bring to the streets on December 1. That is the kind of unity perspective that we bring to the antiwar movement—and I want everyone now to mark the date of March 17 in your brain, because that will be an international day of action for the fourth anniversary of the U.S. war against the people of Iraq.

The things we seek, such as self-determination and sovereignty for the oppressed, an end to killer cops and racism and war and the oppression of LGBTQ people, full rights for disabled people, jobs and education, can never be fully realized under capitalism, a system that is centered on exploiting people and resources and making a profit.

Reforms help a little, but we need a whole lot more than reforms. We don’t need a little less police brutality; we must put an end to it! We don’t need a little more money in our minimum wage paychecks; we need a living wage, and free healthcare, and affordable housing for all! Youth and students shouldn’t have to join the Army to be all that they can be; they need a real future! Rather than reforms, what we need is to commit ourselves to making a revolution together!

We cannot allow ourselves to be fooled by the elections. We have been told for decades that we must put our faith in the bourgeois elections and in the Democratic Party, which supposedly will show us the kinder, gentler face of capitalism.

Didn’t the Democrats vote for this war, and all the other wars? Wasn’t it Bill Clinton and the other Democrats who happily gutted programs such as welfare, food stamps, college education grants and so many others?

Have the Democrats freed Mumia Abu-Jamal or Leonard Peltier? The Democrats represent the same class interests of the big bosses and corporations as the Republicans do. Regardless of who has won an election, millions around the world will continue to live in misery because of U.S. imperialism.

And if we really want a revolution, the history of Chile and other countries has taught us clearly that the ruling class will never just quietly give up power based on elections; at some point, there’s going to be a fight.

The Democrats and Republicans alike have both feet squarely planted in the luxury liner of the big corporations and the filthy rich. I can picture them, out on their fancy cruise ship, living the high life, drinking champagne and eating oysters.

Meanwhile, all us poor and working and oppressed people are in a simple birch-bark canoe together. We look over, and we can see that their ship is named the Titanic. We know it is going to sink, baby. When they get little leaky holes in their ship, the rich get afraid and desperate, and throw more and more stones to try and sink our canoe.

Now, our bark canoe may not be as fancy as the Titanic, but it is sturdy, we have really made it well, and there is room for all of us on it. Every now and then, somebody tries to have one foot in the Titanic, and one foot in the canoe. The boats go their separate ways, and that person falls into the water and drowns. We all have to choose one boat or the other, the Titanic or the canoe. Which one will you choose?

Sisters and brothers, the map of the world is colored with the patterns of our ancestors’ spilled blood. I believe that someday we can make a new map of the world together, a map that does not have borders among workers. Ultimately we will take back everything that is rightfully ours, everything that was stolen from us and built by the blood and sweat of our ancestors.

But in order to do that, we must be highly organized and have a plan of action, because the ruling class knows perfectly well how to join ranks against us. What is required is a new movement of unity, solidarity and resistance in all parts of the world. Workers World Party is and will continue to be in the forefront of that new movement and we invite you to join us.

Our future, and the very future of our Mother Earth, requires us to struggle toward a socialist future. The threats to life in this country and around the globe demand from all of us a new way of thinking, acting and being. We must come together in unity to fight against this vicious government and the corporations that control it. Together, we can build a new movement, the likes of which this country has never seen before!

Sisters and brothers, this is OUR world. Let’s work together to take it back!

Free Leonard! Free Mumia! Ho!