The other day, I saw an African American woman with a T-shirt on that made me take a second look. The grey shirt had a picture on the back that was half the face of a black man and half the face of an indigenous man. In bold yellow letters on the front, the shirt read, “My ancestors were not immigrants.” I smiled, took a breath, made eye contact with her and nodded. Those five simple words brought the complexity of our nation’s history crashing down around me. The easy interpretation was the raw and undeniable legacy of slavery and of a people removed from their land.
The complex intention of the shirt required so much more. It challenged what we knew about history, whose version we learned and how we internalized that the past. It made me think about the term immigration and appreciate it’s meaning so much more. I’ve never had to imagine the courage, the sense of adventure or the desperation that forces someone to leave their home for foreign soil. I’ve just kind of taken it for granted that, except for the two faces shown on the T-shirt, everyone else was an immigrant.
According to historians, even Indigenous people migrated to what is now the United States, more than 20,000 years ago. Since that time, and primarily in the late 1600’s, communities of European, Spanish, Dutch, British and Swedish immigrants made their way to this land.
In fact, so many people arrived that in 1790, Congress passed the first law about who could be deemed or granted American citizenship. The Naturalization Act of 1790 allowed any free white person of “good character,” who had been living in the United States for two years or longer to apply for citizenship. With that citizenship, came constitutional protections. To keep up with who had the right to vote or own property, the country took its first official count of the number of people living in the nation. When the count was completed, they learned that there were 3.9 million individuals in the country. At the time, Africans represented 1 in 5 Americans. Today, some 330 million people call America home.
Over the years, others came to include the Irish, Germans, Chinese and Japanese. Some were brought as children, escaping violence, poverty, ethnic cleansing or religious persecution. Others came looking for hope, freedom or a better opportunity. During a 30-year period through 1920, more than 20 million immigrants from Europe had come to the states. By 1954, more than 12 million immigrants had come through Ellis Island. Located in New York, this was the first U.S. immigration processing center.
I thought about all that from looking at a T-shirt. I thought about the Supreme Court’s decision, this week that blocked the Trump administration from leaving undocumented immigrants out of the 2020 census count. No matter how people try to ignore or rewrite history, we are a nation of immigrants. It’s just that some immigrants chose to close the door on others, after they arrived.