The American Illusion: The Melting Pot That Drowns

Photo by Melany Rochester on Unsplash

Since I was a child, growing up on the East Coast near the D.C. area, I was told that America was a melting pot due to its multi-ethnic makeup. Later, the “melting pot” trope was exchanged for the “salad bowl” in an attempt to acknowledge that all who dwell here are not conformed into one, melted image but rather bring their own cultural tenets to the American table.

These metaphors for life in America are as old as the nation’s founding. As is now known due to recent rises in social justice activism and storytelling, the United States has for too long touted itself as a welcoming, altruistic, democratic land due to entrenched white supremacy and white saviorism. It is now clearly visible that the American melting pot is not a metaphor for welcome, but one for deceiving visitors to step toward the stove, into the warm water, as the heat begins to rise.

Throughout history, each presidential administration has dealt with the issue of immigration and border control differently. Both sides of the aisle have caused harm to migrants, and it did not begin with Donald Trump. To be sure, Donald Trump was able to capitalize on pervasive anti-immigrant media campaigns to ensure his victory, but these narratives have been playing as a broken record for a long time. Before Trump, the first term of the Obama administration began by removing 400,000 immigrants from the U.S. Prior to Obama, the 9/11 attacks sparked the Bush administration to replace the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) with the Department of Homeland Security. Before Bush, Bill Clinton signed aggressive anti-immigrant bills into law (e.g. the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act).(Facts taken from Jose Antonio Vargas’s book Dear America & organization Define American.) Without trudging back through more history, it is easy to see that America’s history of anti-immigrant policies is lengthy and bipartisan.

So, this is not a story about which side of the political aisle is friendlier to immigrants. This is not a story to convince readers how they should vote. This story’s purpose is to illuminate America’s two-faced nature, and spotlight organizations working to help her become more honest, welcoming, and genuinely cooperative. It was James Baldwin who once said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

The story of America as a nation begins with immigration. As settlers from Europe began to file off of ships and onto the land inhabited by Indigenous Peoples, they were in fact migrating in search of a fresh start, of a new life. Their reasons for migration are not so different from the stories of millions of migrants around the world in the 21st century- a secure future, freedom from fear, a place to work, live, and raise a family. However, the difference in each set of migrants’ stories is crucial: the early colonists were white, and the majority of immigrants in America today are not.

At the time of America’s birth, initially as colonies then as an independent nation, there was no talk of “having the right papers,” “or coming here the ‘right way.’” In fact, it was the colonists (immigrants) of this new nation who exacted harm on Indigenous communities in the name of white supremacy and a faulty Christian theology. Christopher Columbus was sent by Pope Alexander VI to convert the Indigenous Peoples of “the new world,” and conquer them in the process. (From Jeannine Hill Fletcher’s book, The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, and Religious Diversity in America.) Although Columbus’s conquest predates the wave of immigrants who settled as colonists from England, his actions left a pattern for other European colonists to follow: convert and conquer.

As the nation developed through forced enslaved labor of Africans, the racist ideology that the European immigrants were the rightful leaders in the “new world” perpetuated and grew. This was especially the case because of the Christian theology the settlers carried and believed. In addition to spiritual beliefs, many also subscribed to the idea that Black people in particular were subjects of the biblical “Curse of Ham” found in the the book of Genesis. By designating one people group as descendants of a curse which was deemed completely real and accurate (being that it is found in the Bible, and the Bible was seen as the ultimate Western authority on truth especially when interpreted by white men), the colonists were further empowered to believe in their racial superiority. This racist ideology tied to the Christian faith resulted in horrific consequences in the treatment of all people of color.

Today, many still claim that the U.S. is a “Christian nation,” without recognizing the full implications of this declaration. Yes, it could be said that the U.S. was founded on Christianity, but it was also this theological belief system that bolstered racism, perpetuated slavery, and backed legislation that has been oppressive to people of color for centuries. Yes, I suppose we are in fact a “Christian” nation.

The early racism of the colonists has bled onto every page of American history ever since. Racism, coupled with Christian theology, has built the nation into what is seen today in 2021: a nation that raises the welcoming torch of the Statue of Liberty with one arm and throws its visitors into cells with the other. America is two-faced, with many of us only seeing one face or the other. To be called a nation of asylum and a champion of democracy while separating immigrant families, providing no clear path to citizenship for undocumented Americans (until just a few weeks ago, for the first time) while claiming to have due process, employing immigrant laborers while telling them to “go home” is not only confusing; it is disastrous. The cultural and legal hoops that migrants are forced to jump through, not to mention the financial and emotional costs of attempting to “get legal,” are too many to count. One thing is for certain: At its core, the U.S. has grown from the roots of racism and fear, and those early seeds have now bloomed into poisonous flowers. It is impossible to change the two-faced nature of the blooms without going down to the roots and plucking them from the earth. (This is not to say that racism, fear, and white supremacy do not still exist and inform modern American culture and policy, because they do.)

That is why history matters, and that is why organizations challenging the narrative around immigration and undocumented status are doing so in a way that gets at the core of America’s culture and value system. Who “deserves” to be here, and why? What needs to change for immigrants to live free and full lives?

Here are a few great organizations I’ve discovered that you can learn from, donate to, volunteer with, or tell others about:

Define American: Founded by the undocumented journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, its goal is to enact cultural change surrounding immigrants (documented or undocumented) by telling stories of immigrants through various media outlets. Their belief is that we cannot see effective policy change unless there is effective heart change in Americans toward their immigrant neighbors.
https://www.defineamerican.com/

United We Dream: The largest immigrant-led youth community in the nation, they seek to “empower people to develop their leadership, their organizing skills, and to develop our own campaigns to fight for justice and dignity for immigrants and all people. This is achieved through immigrant youth-led campaigns at the local, state, and federal level.” (Quote pulled from the About page of their website)
https://unitedwedream.org/

FWD.us: “FWD.us is a bipartisan political organization that believes America’s families, communities, and economy thrive when more individuals are able to achieve their full potential. For too long, our harmful immigration and criminal justice systems have locked too many people out from the American dream…Our goal is to influence policymakers and those around them to make the policy changes that create opportunity and unlock America’s potential.” (Quote pulled from the About page of their website) FWD.us focuses on both immigration and criminal justice reform.
https://www.fwd.us/

These organizations are not the only ones working to secure immigrant rights & justice. They are just a few that I have personally looked into and learned from, and can be a great place to start if you’re interested in immigration reform!

Ultimately, despite America’s roots from which harmful immigration policies have sprung, there is hope. This is not about a political party or a particular media outlet. This is about people. As Jose Antonio Vargas says in his book Dear America, people cannot be illegal. It is time to humanize an issue that has too often been abstracted, ignored, and vilified. In order to do so, history demands our attention and people deserve justice. We each have a role to play in digging up the roots.

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Madison Pattin

Madison Pattin

I’m a grad school drop-out who writes about a myriad of topics including social justice, my rescue dogs, and books. Instagram: @mathsiiin