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(Re)Mapping the centres Membership and State

Trevor Harris

Immigrant Identities, Diaspora Communities, and Cultural Constructions of Nationalism in the United States

Ali Behdad

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1In our letters of invitation, we were asked by the organizers of the conference to talk within the theoretical framework presented in the call for papers that they had sent us earlier. And so let me begin with the first two sentences of the statement: "How is it possible to belong to a territory when its boundaries are no longer exclusively physical? How can we define the center, or allegiance to that center, at the end of the second millennium, if that center cannot hold?" I do not want so much to provide answers to these questions as engage with their theoretical assumption: namely, the weakening of the nation-state in the age of globalism.

2As you are well aware, the words "nation" and "nationalism" are not so fashionable these days, as new concepts such as globalism, diaspora, transnationalism, postnation, etc., have displaced them as key terms in contemporary cultural discussions of identity and society. Encouraged by the changes heralded by economic globalization and the spread of immigrant communities throughout the world, most cultural critics have suggested that "overmastering" and "monologic" notions of identity associated with a particular nation or ethnicity impair "intellectual freedom" and suppress creative interaction between members of various communities – not to mention the fact that they also seem antiquated. In a variety of discourses, reminiscent of earlier Marxist rejection of nationalism, these critics view the nation form as an obsolete model of community, cultivated only by ethnic fundamentalists and oppressive regimes, while considering nationalism a dark, elemental, and repressive discourse producing only ethnic conflicts and homogenous and monolithic identities. To go beyond the limits of national identity and to account for the global traffic of people, ideas and commodities, these critics have invented a new vocabulary to describe an alternative "cartography of social space".

3No one, perhaps, has been more outspoken about the need for a new vocabulary than the cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai. Appadurai feels that nationalism – once his common sense and the principle justification for his ambitions, strategies, and sense of moral well-being, as someone who grew up male in the elite sector of the postcolonial world – has become outdated and reactionary. In his seminal essay, "Patriotism and its Futures" (in Appadurai, 1996) therefore, he posits the concepts of "postnation" and "postnational" to describe our cultural and political condition half a century after the wars of independence. Appadurai uses these terms to mean three things. First, he employs these terms to mean "the [historical] process of moving to a global order in which the nation-state has become obsolete and other formations for allegiance and identity have taken its place". Second, he has in mind the "alternative forms for the organization of global traffic in resources, images, and ideas – forms that either contest the nation-state actively or constitute peaceful alternatives for large-scale political loyalties". And third, he has in mind what may be labeled diasporic nationalism which, encouraged by "the steady erosion of the capabilities of the nation-state to monopolize loyalty," are "largely divorced from territorial states" (169). The example that he cites to drive these points home is, ironically, not his beloved India, whose nationality he still holds, but the United States, an enormously wealthy nation that has been able to organize itself around "a modem political ideology in which pluralism is central to the conduct of democratic life" – a nation where various immigrant communities have been able to manufacture what he calls "delocalized transnations" which retain special ideological links to a putative place of origin but are otherwise thoroughly diasporic collectivities.

4As someone who has studied the phenomena of nationalism and immigration in the United States, and as someone living in California, a state that has spearheaded a new anti-immigrant consciousness, I wish to take issue with both his example of a transnation and the general assumptions of his argument about the weakening of the state. More specifically, I want to argue that immigration in the United States, far from producing delocalized transnations, has been both a necessary mechanism of social control in the formation of the state apparatus and an essential cultural contribution to the formation of national identity. Immigration in America offers a cultural discourse through which the nation imagines itself and a field of sociopolitical practices whereby the state exercises its disciplinary power. Located at the interstices of national consciousness and state apparatus, immigration makes the ambivalent concept of the "nation-state" imaginable in America: while the figure of the "alien" provides the differential signifier through which the nation defines itself as an autonomous community, the juridical and administrative regulations of immigration construe the collective sovereignty of the modern state. The circulation of social and political energy between these polar forces of identification and regulation allows for an ambivalent form of national consciousness that bridges the split between the nation and the state with its socalled cyclical history of tolerance and exclusion. To unpack the ambivalent structure of American nationalism, it is necessary to consider both the social history of "nativism" and the legal history of immigration law in the United States. Given the space available to me, I can only provide a general outline of my argument.

  • 1 I am referring here to Washington's description of America as "an asylum... to the oppressed and n (...)
  • 2 Letters from an American Farmer (extract reprinted in Abbott, ed., 1926, 16). As it will become ev (...)

5On the one hand, as Hans Kohn remarked, "The character of the United States as a land with open gateways, a nation of many nations, became as important for American nationalism as its identification with the idea of individual liberty and its federal character" (1957, 135). Jefferson's and George Washington's notion of America as an asylum for the oppressed and needy of the globe has been consistently interpreted as one of the nation's most important founding myths, and as such has been repeated throughout the country's political and social history.1 Beginning with J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur's glorification of America as an "every person's country" in 1782,2 through the celebration of the country as a heterogeneous community in the poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emma Lazarus, and Walt Whitman in the nineteenth century, to the more recent claims of twentiethcentury scholars such as Louis Adamic (1938), Milton Gordon (1961), Oscar Handlin (1959) and Hans Kohn, every generation has repeated and thus perpetuated the founding myth. Even Ronald Reagan, whose administration helped the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, polemically asked in his nomination speech in 1980:

Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely, Jews and Christians enduring persecution behind the Iron Curtain, the boat people of Southeast Asia, of Cuba and Haiti, victims of drought and famine in Africa? (Congressional Quarterly 1980, 2066. Quoted in Fuchs, 1992, 40)

6There is no doubt that at least until the late-nineteenth century, the United States was mostly hospitable toward newcomers and maintained an open-door immigration policy. But like every national myth, the discourse of asylum is forgetful of the historical context of its formation. What the myth of the nation as a refuge for the oppressed of all nations represses is that until very recently, "it was applied only to whites from Europe" and that "it was driven primarily by capital seeking labor in pursuit of wealth and by the desire to clear Indians from their own lands" (ibid.). Latent in Jefferson's benevolence toward immigrants is a colonialist will to appropriate the land and a capitalist desire for expansion. Indeed, it is worth noting that the debate among the founding fathers about immigration did not revolve around the issue of human rights (or the "needy") but focused instead on the advantages and disadvantages of immigration as a solution to the new nation's need for labor.

  • 3 The first reference appears in his "Notes on Virginia" and the second in a letter of September 12, (...)
  • 4 In this sense, the kind of claim that I make about United States nationalism can be broadened to i (...)

7Not only does the myth of America as an asylum disremember the ideological underpinnings and the political context of America's production, but it also represses the fact of nativism in defining the nation. Even Jefferson, who carried the banner of pro-immigration, spoke disparagingly about the immigrant "mobs of great cities" in the East and against "German settlements" in the Midwest for preserving "their own languages, habits, and principles of government".3 The notion of cultural and political assimilation always underlies the myth of the immigrantloving nation, as newcomers are expected to lose their old national "skins" in order to become Americans. As John Quincy Adams bluntly put it, "They [immigrants to America] come to a life of independence, but to a life of labor and, if they cannot accommodate themselves to the character, moral, political and physical, of this country with all its compensating balances of good and evil, the Atlantic is always open to them to return to the land of her nativity and their fathers.... They must cast off the European skin, never to resume it" (in Gordon, 1961, 268). Repressed in the myth of asylum is the notion of ethnic diversity and difference. As Lawrence Fuchs observes, "It was not until well into the twentieth century that 'melting pot' implied ethnic diversity" (40). To be accepted as an immigrant, the newcomer had to forsake his or her ethnicity and relinquish her or his political and religious differences. In other words, to be an American, one must renounce his or her ethnic and immigrant roots. Assimilation is the only way one can become an American as an immigrant. What this historical exclusion of diversity and difference suggests is that nativism is not contradictory to the nation's myth of asylum, but a repressed component of its formation. As histories of American nativism have demonstrated, the nation's benign image of itself as a haven for the "oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions," to quote Washington, has always coexisted with intolerance and racism toward new immigrants. It is not that American nationalism emerged as an effect of nativism, or even that nationalism causes nativism. Rather, nationalism has always embodied a nativist, or anti-foreign component to manufacture an imagined sense of community (i.e., the nation). Nativism does not constitute a contradiction to the national myth of asylum; rather, it is the culmination of what the latter conveniently represses, namely, the nation's self-interested benevolence toward immigrants. Nativism is the limit of nationalism as an exclusionary mode of identification.4 The various currents of nativism in the United States point to a differential and exclusionary mode of national identification in which the figure of the foreigner is invested with values contradictory to the American polity.

8It is these values that provide the ideological incentive for the state's regulation of what is described as the immigration crisis, a regulation that is simultaneously productive of the differential identification. As the colonialist myth of the frontier disappeared in the late-nineteenth century and the general public became less hospitable toward new immigrants for bringing down wages by increasing the supply of labor and for requiring extra social-welfare expenditures, the state, specifically the federal government, was forced to move toward a more regulatory and restrictive immigration policy. Until 1882, authority over immigration was exercised by individual state governments and local officials, allowing each state to legislate and exercise jurisdiction over immigrants according to its labor needs. But with the passing of the Immigration Act of August 3, 1882, the federal government established the administrative, bureaucratic, and regulatory machinery to control immigration. Supported by the Supreme Court's ruling in the 1875 case of Henderson v. Mayor of New York, which declared unconstitutional individual states' laws regulating immigration, the 1882 Act practically transferred the authority and practice of immigration from states to the federal government, marking thus a crucial stage in the development of immigration as an important site for the state's regulatory practices in the United States. The state simultaneously took charge of immigration by providing individual states with funds to cover immigrant welfare, while building the administrative machinery to regulate and control immigration. A few years later, with the Immigration Act of 1891, the Congress created the Office of Immigration, the predecessor to today's INS, to oversee the regulation of immigration. This new state apparatus was a disciplinary institution from its very genesis, monitoring the flow of new arrivals, supervising the individual states' regulation of contract labor laws, and deporting excludable aliens. The investing of the Office of Immigration with the authority to supervise and control aliens and the Congress's active role in legislating new immigration laws shifted the practice of immigration regulation from a regional and particular issue to a national and general problem. As the federal government's role in regulating immigration increased, immigration was generalized as a national problem to be regulated and controlled by state apparatuses.

  • 5 See Higham, 1973, 211-212.
  • 6 Los Angeles Times, November 24, 1993.

9What is significant about the state's juridical and administrative control of immigration since 1882 is its role in the production of a national consensus about immigration as a problem. "Every social formation," Althusser has demonstrated, "must reproduce the conditions of its production at the same time as it produces, and in order to be able to produce" (1971, 128). The state is no exception to this rule: the state's regulatory apparatus is productive of the consensus it elicits from civil society at the same time as it produces such apparatuses of regulation as the police, the prisons, the INS, and the Border Patrol. The state's manufacturing of social consensus is achieved not only through the exercising of hegemony over such ideological apparatuses as the schools, political parties, legal system, and so on, but also by perpetuating a popular and violent form of vigilantism through the uses of patriotic rhetoric and nationalist discourse. As a result, the state's legislation and regulation of immigration in the United States have often perpetuated, instead of soothed, the general public's patriotic fervor and exclusionary attitudes. There are many examples to cite here. For instance, the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, rather than diminishing the public's anxiety about the "yellow peril," was followed by a series of violent riots against "orientals" in the West Coast. Demonstrations against the Chinese occurred throughout Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. Similarly, the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1918 instead of lulling post-war vigilantism, intensified it. Tolerated by the government, secret voluntary organizations such as the American Protective League took the law in their own hands to police the public: carrying out investigations of "disloyal" behavior and utterances, locating draft evaders, spotting violators of food and gasoline regulations, and even checking up on people who did not buy Liberty bonds.5 And finally, the 1986 Immigration Control and Reform Act, instead of appeasing the public about the nation's immigration crisis, helped the emergence of a broad range of regulatory practices by watchful citizens who have voluntarily produced and participated in such organizations as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the American Immigration Control Foundation (AICF), and the Center for Immigration Studies, trying to create a "Nation of Americans". Not only have these voluntary organizations been instrumental in perpetuating the current anti-immigrant frenzy, through such projects as "Light the Border," but they have also "commissioned academic studies on the economic impact of immigration and financed opinion polls that reflect a growing public resentment of illegal immigration".6 In addition, these organizations regularly lobby Congress to pass stricter immigration laws and file amicus briefs in suits that deal with undocumented immigration. The success of these organizations points to the dynamic function of the state as an ideological apparatus that can produce and perpetuate the consensus it elicits from its citizens by interpolating them as patriotic subjects.

10Anti-immigration is a form of defensive patriotism today, for opposition to immigration is always articulated in terms of a defense against the eroding of "American" values and the disintegration of national unity. The perpetual crisis of immigration in the United States constantly re-inscribes a notion of difference on the national community and its others, a difference that must be constantly maintained to propagate a space of contestation where concepts of nationality as citizenship and state as sovereignty can be re-articulated and re-affirmed. The crisis of immigration, in other words, awakens the community to self-consciousness as a nation, while legitimating the state apparatus to guard its sovereignty by marking and guarding its physical and cultural boundaries.


Works Cited

Abbot, Edith, ed., 1926. Historical Aspects of the Immigration Problem: Selected Documents. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Adamic, Louis, 1938. My America, 1928-1938. New York: Harper.

Althusser, Louis, 1971. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)". In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Appadurai, Arjun, 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kohn, Hans, 1957. American Nationalism: An Interpretative Essay New York: The Macmillan Company.

Grant, Madison and Chas. Stewart Davidson, eds., 1928. The Founders of the Republic on Immigration, Naturalization and Aliens. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Fuchs, Lawrence H., 1992. "Thinking about Immigration and Ethnicity in the United States". In Immigrants in Two Democracies: French and American Experience. Edited by Donald L. Horowitz and Gérard Noiriel. New York: New York University Press.

Gordon, Milton, 1961. "Assimilation in America: Theory and Realitv." Daedalus 90: 2.

Handlin, Oscar, 1959. Boston's Immigrants. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Higham, John, 1973. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925. New York: Atheneum.

Rischin, Moses, 1966. Immigration and the American Tradition. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.


1 I am referring here to Washington's description of America as "an asylum... to the oppressed and needy of the Earth" (quoted in Rischin, 1966,44).

2 Letters from an American Farmer (extract reprinted in Abbott, ed., 1926, 16). As it will become evident in my discussion of the country's nativism, the historical accuracy of Crèvecœur's alluring portrait of America as a hospitable and kind nation to immigrants is questionable, but the letters were nonetheless so popular that several editions and numerous reviews appeared within only a few years.

3 The first reference appears in his "Notes on Virginia" and the second in a letter of September 12, 1817, to George Flower (Founders, 62; 70).

4 In this sense, the kind of claim that I make about United States nationalism can be broadened to include other forms of national identification elsewhere, but for the sake of specificity, my discussion focuses on the case of American nationalism.

5 See Higham, 1973, 211-212.

6 Los Angeles Times, November 24, 1993.



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