WE ARE AN IMMIGRANT nation unique in history, the only country that consciously invented itself rather than evolved from a mythic past. People came here not to conquer new lands for a mother country but to break from old bonds and start anew (African-Americans, forcibly brought here as slaves, being the obvious exception). Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock to found a community free from England’s oppression. This collective shedding of the past, combined with the extraordinary freedoms that didn’t exist in the rest of the world, enabled us to attract and assimilate peoples from everywhere more successfully than any other country in history. (Many scholars now believe that Native Americans would have done far better after they were violently displaced had they not, in effect, been ghettoized on reservations.)
For most of our history there was no such thing as an illegal alien because there were virtually no immigration rules: One just showed up. In the late 19th century immigrants were processed at Ellis Island and elsewhere, but that was primarily for health reasons. If you weren’t sick, you got in. (In an ugly outburst of prejudice during that period barriers were erected to keep out people from China and Japan.)
It wasn’t until the 1920s that the U.S. imposed serious obstacles that brought immigration to a virtual halt. This turned out to be an aberration. Barriers were eased dramatically in 1965, and the number of entrants has since increased sharply.
A primary reason for American exceptionalism is that the British colonizing experience was different from all others. Spanish and Portuguese immigrants to Latin America usually went with the idea of getting rich and then returning home or retiring to an urban center to live a life of leisure. They didn’t intend to sink deep roots the way people did in New England.
By Steve Forbes for Forbes
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