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Reflecting on Immigration this Thanksgiving

Centuries of genocide against indigenous peoples have erased the real history of our hemisphere. Descendants of colonizers call the US a nation of immigrants, claiming ownership of land in the name of white people who displaced original inhabitants

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This Thanksgiving as you debate President Trump’s most outrageous quotes at the dinner table, take a moment to thank an immigrant.,

When the first Europeans showed up on the shores of this hemisphere, they were not immigrants; they intended to replace not integrate with the millions of people and thousands of nations already living here for centuries. Among the original inhabitants, not one was white. Some history books call this a “discovery”; some speak of “bringing civilization,” and others just call it by its name: genocide.

The people, families and children, arriving today at our borders and airports have no criminal intent, yet they are caged, detained, families torn apart, starved, left in some cases to illness and death.  

Think about this while you eat your “thanksgiving” dinner! 

Centuries of genocide against indigenous peoples have erased the real history of this hemisphere. Today the descendants of colonizers call the US a nation of immigrants. They claim ownership of this land in the name of white people who displaced the original inhabitants, and they enforce policies to exclude those whose native ancestry actually predates our own arrival. 

Most of the families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border come from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and are indigenous, still fleeing repression and murder, often pushed off the lands they have lived on and lack a voice in their own countries. These three countries, by the way, are among the most dangerous and violent in the world. Why is that? How did these countries become so violent? 

Repeated—I would say endless--U.S. military interventions, support for military dictatorships, funding for military and paramilitary organizations and training, along with US corporate plunder, have fueled the displacements and subsequent migrations.  

We often hear the nations of Central and  South America being referred to as “underdeveloped” as if they never sought to build stronger economies for a better life. When I first started teaching Latin America Studies back in 1970, I discovered a book called The Development of Underdevelopment by Andre Gunder Frank. It was a light bulb moment for me. US economic and political interests did not want to see competition in this hemisphere; they wanted subordination and dependency, so the US could take their natural resources, use their cheap labor and prevent the development of national industries. US corporations actively prevented national economic development in the Americas. Thus they developed underdevelopment! 

When the nations south of the border elected presidents who would use their resources to create wealth for their own people, those presidents were swiftly overthrown in coups funded and coordinated by the U.S. I was in Chile 1972-73 when Salvador Allende was president and declared that the copper of Chile belonged to the Chileans. I witnessed the massive US effort to overthrow Allende and wipe out the popular movements. I contributed to a book about the right wing counter-revolution published by Quimantu, Chile’s National Publishing House, that came out a month before the coup. On September 11, 1973 all copies of that book were burned, except one, in my possession. I also testified before the US Senate and House on US intervention.  

Bolivia is a continuation of the original genocide. The one word that can help us understand the recent coup in Bolivia is LITHIUM. President Evo Morales nationalized their valuable raw materials. Bolivia has the largest lithium reserves in the world. Why is lithium so critical??? Just look at your cell phone. 

The reason for the recent upsurge in migrations out of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala is a direct effect of US interventions. 

We have been watching hearings in DC that denounce a US foreign policy built on bribery for personal ends. In truth blackmail and extortion have always driven US foreign policy, for the benefit of US capital and corporations.  Just consider the three recent pacts signed by El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala agreeing to be “safe havens” for immigrants fleeing those very countries. They are, of course, the least safe places in the world, but the US said “Sign or no foreign aid, no military aid.” Since we installed and supported those repressive regimes, they rely totally on the US to remain in office. Bribery? Blackmail? Extortion? In the name of national security? Give me a break!  

The US military, US corporations and US capital have crossed the border freely; that is what is at the heart of free trade agreements. Free for capital, costly for humans. People were never so free to cross into the US.

When the U.S. was desperate for workers during our century of industrialization, the government strictly favored northern Europeans over Southern Europeans and prohibited any immigrants of color…you know people from those “shithole” countries. Slave ships brought Africans to do the work, but the colonies never intended to give them citizenship or the vote. Even after the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln tried to resettle blacks in Panama, and couldn’t understand why Frederick Douglas had a problem with that.

Latinx peoples living in the Southwest and West of the US on their own land, land that belonged to Mexico, were treated like indentured servants at best. The US invaded and stole one-third of Mexico, because after independence, Mexico opened its border to fugitive slaves. The US intervened in the Spanish American War –really the war of liberation for Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines --and then claimed ownership of those countries. But the U.S. never meant for those people to live here equally. 

Our immigration policies have always been racist and opportunist. Come when we need you but don’t expect to be accepted. When the Great Depression hit, right here in NW Indiana, the government rounded up thousands of Mexican descendants, including second and third generation U.S. citizens and loaded them into trains that dropped them off across the Mexican border.  

Labor shortages in agriculture opened temporary doors but they were revolving doors, that swept the farmworkers back out as soon as the labor was not needed. The US brought in Philippine farm labor but prohibited them from bringing in women or marrying whites and denied them citizenship; the same with Chinese immigrants.  

Without knowing the history, you cannot understand US immigration policy.

Without knowing its racist roots, you will not understand the inhumane treatment of immigrants.

Chances are you have heard this poem before: 

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

- Martin Niemoller


What it tells us about today is that silence and inaction are complicity. Through inaction, you are allowing babies and children to be torn from their parents; you are allowing neglect and brutality to kill refugees; through silence you are condoning government terrorism at the border. To remain silent, to do nothing is complicity. Face the truth about our history this Thanksgiving and commit to act. 


[Ruth Needleman, professor merits, IU Labor Studies, teaches global social movements at the Chicago School of the Arts Institute and coordinates Northwest Indiana Resist, an umbrella group fighting the weekly deportations at the Gary Airport. She has a weekly 2-hour radio show, WLTH 1370 FM 92.7 and streamed on Facebook “Lorrell & Dr. Truth.]