Are We All Immigrants?

immigrantsWe are all immigrants. I don’t mean all Americans, I mean all humans. All of our ancestors left one land and moved to another. It’s theoretically possible that someone’s family has been squatting on the same parcel of African savannah their great grandparents evolved on, but it’s most likely they left at some point and then came back.

But let’s look at what the meme at left says.

1. It erases Native people. Natives still exist, are still here, have been here.

Native Americans mirgated to the New World from the Old, of course, and what is more, they came in waves. There must have been a group that came first, and maybe someday we’ll figure out who it was; but we can’t really assume that one Native American group was the first one because it is convenient for us. Remember that humans tend to find a place and try to push whoever was there before them out. This is how the proto-Sanskrit speakers drove the Dravidians to the south of India; this is how the Bantu speakers spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa; almost certainly each wave group to cross the Bering Strait drove previous groups on ahead, in a domino effect. Subsequently, of course, people throughout the Americas moved around from land to land, based on the currents of power and environmental concerns, inevitably over the course of twenty millennia or so, migrating freely.

(The idea, rarely articulated but often tacitly assumed, that once across the Bering Strait peoples peacefully agreed to parcel out the southern land according to need based on a desire to “share,” would be an unprecedented and Ockham-busting reversal of human nature.)

You may object that calling the events of twenty-thousand years ago “immigration,” and of course this is not what we usually mean when we say “immigration.” But neither are conquistadors and the Virginia Company what we think of when we say “immigrants”; the whole point of saying “We are all immigrants” is to stretch the meaning from immigrant archetypes (such as Mexicans and nineteenth-century Irishmen) to include everyone: DARs and Mayflower descendants and, yes, Native Americans.

You can disagree with the meaning of the word, but that’s different from assuming your opponent is “erasing” people.

2. The majority of people you label “illegal” are actually Native and have more right to be here than the actual descendants of invaders trying to keep them out with their European borders.

There’s enough truth in this statement that you can see what the meme is getting at, but it relies on some arbitrary distinctions. All land “ownership” goes back to some initial assumptions. The meme seems to be asserting “sovereign nations have no right to establish borders; borders are determined by the distribution of peoples on a given date I will decide on.”


Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1619 territory in red.

Peoples and countries tend to assume their “natural borders” are whatever the largest extent of these borders is. Naturally, this leads to overlapping claims, which is one reason there is always war in the Balkans. Or check out how big Poland and Lithuania used to be! When we wrangle about the date, Poland and Lithuania will be voting for 1619; Macedonia will vote for 323 B.C.; Mongolia would choose 1260 or so. You may say some of these are empires, and do not count, but good luck getting people to agree on what counts. Meanwhile, the Basque, as the last bastion of pre-Indo-European invasion natives, will lay claim to all of Europe. In the Alsace-Lorraine, everyone is getting nervous.

My suspicion is that no one really thinks that all borders should be dissolved or redrawn (although many people think some borders should be dissolved or redrawn). There is no statement of policy being made here; the word “right” is not being used to mean anything actually asserted to be a right.

In a word, there is no ideology here, just demographic signaling.

3. Lastly, Black people did not migrate here. They were brought here by the people who stole/colonized this land.

I don’t know if “migration” implies choice (certainly many people immigrate as children, or even babies), but let’s leave that be for now. Instead, look at this a different way.

The majority of African-Americans are partially of European heritage; in fact, the majority are at least 1/8 white. I’m not in charge of people’s racial identities, so I’m not saying that anyone’s identity is anything other than 100% black, nor am I trying to erase the antebellum rape that led to a lot of this race mixing; I’m just talking about people’s ancestors, and whether they were immigrants.

Furthermore, the majority of African-Americans who are not part European are more recent (and “more recent” is not very recent; it’s been over 200 years since the practice of importing slaves ended) and therefore unambiguous immigrants.

That means that aside from a very small number of people who were descended from slaves that never mixed with either 1. whites or 2. black immigrants, American blacks are at least in part descended from immigrants.


I don’t think this meme makes good sense, but I also don’t think it’s supposed to make sense. Similarly, saying something like “we are all immigrants” isn’t supposed to make sense, either; it’s just supposed to signal.

Saying “we are all immigrants” ostensibly signals “I am a member of an open minded and conciliatory demographic.” As Justin Timberlake learned,  signaling that you’re part of a conciliatory demographic is hardly conciliatory to all demographics. Sharing this meme is xxfrinkx1a good way to signal that your demographic rejects, or sees through, or (more precisely) distinguishes itself from this demographic. “Actually, we are not the same, because you are different,” is about as explicit as we can get in asserting our demographic independence.

As far as memes go, I would say that is one is less aggressively incorrect than usual, but only because it asserts fewer facts, preferring to make vague quibbles about the definition of “immigrant.”

Perhaps we should start saying: “Depending on how you define your terms, we are all immigrants to varying degrees of precision.”



  1. “Lastly, Black people did not migrate here. They were brought here by the people who stole/colonized this land.”

    Well, some black people did migrate to the Unites States consensually. It seems to me this sentence ‘erases people’ much more than saying we’re all immigrants.

    And the use of the word immigrant to describe anyone who descended from an immigrant, is not what most people tend to mean when they use that word.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your last point is a fair cop, but clearly this is what anyone who says “we are all immigrants” means (unless weirdly delusional?), so the meme is just playing along.


    2. Also, the way blacks who chose to immigrate get erased by this meme, as you point out — this is similar to the way that 18-year-old women were erased by the Clinton meme. It turns out it’s really, really difficult to include everyone, and all you can do is try to decide whom you exclude. This would be a simple question of tactics if it weren’t for the fact that we (“we” = some demographics, to be fair) have decided to treat these inevitable exclusions as something other than a simple trade off, by use of the shibboleth “erase,” but only on an ad hoc basis.


  2. Notington Tinfoilhatter · · Reply

    Okay — you’ve posted on similar topics enough that I was roused out of my, well, just plain lazy slumber, to find this quotation in Hegel’s phenomenology of spirit. For context, he’s talking about the french revolution — specifically the terror. A bunch of high minded folks just declared the importance of equality — we’re all equal. All of these horrible divisions in society were unjust and ruining everything. We’re gonna fix it, make it right, make a just city! There’s still probably way too much Hegelese for even that context to make this meaningful but:

    “Before the universal can perform a deed it must concentrate itself into the One of individuality and put at the head an individual self-consciousness; for the universal will is only an actual will in a self, which is a One. But thereby all other individuals are excluded from the entirety of this deed and have only a limited share in it, so that the deed would not be a deed of the actual universal self-consciousness. Universal freedom, therefore, can produce neither a positive work nor a deed; there is left for it only negative action; it is merely the fury of destruction […]

    The sole work and deed of universal freedom is therefore death, a death too which has no inner significance or feeling, for what is negated is the empty point of the absolutely free self. It is thus the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance than cutting off a head of cabbage or swallowing a mouthful of water. […]

    What is called government is merely the victorious faction, and in the very fact of its being a faction lies the direct necessity of its overthrow[…]. When the universal will maintains that what the government has actually done is a crime committed against it, the government, for its part, has nothing specific and outwardly apparent by which the guilt of the will opposed to it could be demonstrated; for what stands opposed to it as the actual universal will is only an unreal pure will, intention. Being suspected, therefore, takes the place or has the significance and effect of being guilty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Let me see if I get this. Universal will, if it exists, cannot act, and only individual wills can act. So for the universal will to act, it must operate through an individual, necessarily excluding all others. Even if the will wills freedom, this necessary exclusion of the vast majority of humanity is more…oppressive? than anything else.

      (Is this not true of a universal will to something other than freedom?)

      Since a government represents only one view among many (there would be no need for it if we had universal concord), it is similarly exclusionary. It’s only response is that those it has excluded are guilty of being excluded — a murderer can fairly say, sure I’m a murderer, but you chose to make murder wrong, making me bad in your eyes only ex post facto. Since this is tautological and not very persuasive, the government is left flailing around executing whomever it wants?

      Is this close? The “therefore” in that last sentence is requiring a lot of faith.


    2. (Notington cleared this Hegel up for me. It’s not the state murdering the people, it’s the people murdering the state, or the representatives of the state, or the representatives of the hegemony, or those suspected of being…)


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