A Native view of immigration
Published Nov 22, 2006 12:34 AM
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!
Articles copyright 1995-2012 Workers World.
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.
Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011
Email: [email protected]
Subscribe [email protected]
Support independent news DONATE