Borderlands e-journal logo All issues all issues Guidelines rollover Guidelines for contributors
Debates rollover About rollover About borderlands e-journal
Reviews Reviews rollover Editorial team rollover Editorial team
a forgetful nation Arrow vol 5 no 3 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 3, 2006



Dialogues with A Forgetful Nation: Genealogy of Immigration Discourses in the US

Ali Behdad, A Forgetful Nation: On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005).

Ayse Deniz Temiz


1. During the series of mobilizations for migrants' rights in the US from March to May last year the imagery, the bi-lingual phraseology and the bodily performance of the political statement of migrant masses introduced novel elements to the political culture of the country, while engaging with some of the deep-rooted elements of that culture in unforeseen ways. The nation's well-reputed hospitality was a major theme that circulated through the banners, emerging with a nuance and a singular turn of phrase on each handcrafted placard. In one of them, a Native American figure drawn in crayon said, "Your ancestors didn't have green cards or visas when they came, we didn't even invite them." Another banner read "My Irish ancestors were illegal." Yet another declared "This country is built by immigrants," while a great many placards in computer print-out quoted the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the statue of liberty, recalling the nation's historical promise of refuge to oppressed arrivals from abroad. The genealogy of the discourses on immigration and the regimes of immigration control in the US, articulated by Ali Behdad in A Forgetful Nation, offers the historical ground required to contextualize the varying discursive strategies deployed in the recent mobilizations, as well as in the current public debate on migration in the US. Although the book has been published before these demonstrations, I will approach it from the point of its relevance for evaluating the trajectories that the movement for migrants' rights is currently assuming. Consequently, my reading will shift the focus of the text somewhat away from its inquiry on how the construction of cultural identity in the US has always relied on an ambivalent account of the experience of immigration--the precise content of which, Behdad demonstrates, is shaped in line with the economic and political demands of each specific era--to the question of in what way, if at all, the multiple versions of the discourse on 'immigrant nation' can be utilized for a political movement of migrants today. To Behdad's question of "what gets forgotten in/by the discourse on migration" I will respond by asking, "what does remembering imply in the current political context?"

2. In the introduction, Behdad defines his project as the exploration of the heterogeneous ways in which immigration has historically been framed in the cultural, literary, political philosophical, and juridical discursive realms. The guiding thread of his genealogy is the ambivalence between the position that treats immigration as a threat to the nation's cultural integrity, and the counter position that confers upon immigration a founding role in the very definition of American identity, as well as a power of sustenance and revitalization of American exceptionalism with its frontier ideology. To be able to account for the endurance of the anti-immigrant sentiment even through periods when immigration is promoted by the state, and to comprehend the discourses of pluralism and exclusion not simply as alternating but rather as co-existing discourses that feed into one another, Behdad deploys the psychoanalytic concept of "disavowal" in analyzing the responses to immigration. This concept enables him to identify the obliteration of key aspects of immigration in the very texts that posit it as the essence of American political heritage.

3. The first moment of the genealogy is Tocqueville's Democracy in America. The enlightenment philosopher from continental Europe finds in the inaugural moment of the new nation the essence of democracy. Behdad highlights in Tocqueville's account the coupling between the Puritan migrant community, as the bearer of democratic ideals, and the exceptional geography they settle, that facilitates the flourishing of these ideals into an agrarian society of equals. This telluric notion of democratic citizenship and state is made possible, Behdad maintains, thanks to the disavowal of the presence of Native Americans on a land that is otherwise regarded as a providential gift to a chosen people. The 'detail' of the violence against the natives, which spoils Tocqueville's image of the land as the egalitarian basis for the agrarian society, is cast to the margin of Tocqueville's text as an appendix, along with his observations on the practices of slavery.

4. The implications of the Freudian notion of disavowal in Tocqueville's account could be pursued more fully, in my opinion, than this analysis of forgetfulness permits. Freud's exposition of the concept, briefly scanned in Behdad's introduction, involves two other terms that stand as cornerstones in the psychoanalytic theory of memory: that of the primal scene and fetishism. The primal scene is the moment of inception of the subject's memory, which coincides with the moment when the illusion of a perfect origin, as a state of plenitude without conflicts, is disturbed for the first time by the acknowledgement of the other's presence. This painful acknowledgement of the other that undermines the sovereignty of the subject, however, often takes place alongside a disavowal, a split consciousness and denial of the other's presence on the blank slate of the self's memory. Thus simultaneously recognized and negated, the other becomes a fetish for the self, namely that which the self approaches as its limit, without ever acknowledging it as its corollary, a full-fledged subject. The subject's condition for recognizing the other as fetish is to deny him/her agency or the capacity for change by pinning him/her down with a fixed image. I will attempt to point the implications of figuring of the migrant as a fetish further in the essay.

5. Let us pursue some of the paradoxes emerging from Tocqueville's treatment of the emergence of democracy from the blank slate of the new continent as a wilderness to be cultivated as well as a divine gift for the chosen people. The telluric notion of citizenship operates in two ways: first, it sets up a unique coupling between the land that is unframed by social relations and the arrival of people who are themselves assumed to be divested of any prior social determination. Secondly, it defines the condition for this perfect complementarity as the ownership of land, whence derives the egalitarian principle of the community. Indeed, as Behdad shows, the equal distribution of the land is premised, in Tocqueville's writing, on the supposed homogeneity of the newly arrived people in terms of their ethnic, religious, and class origins, as well as on the existence of a common language among them. The coincidence of all these conditions gives us the real precondition for Tocqueville's notion of citizenship, which diverges considerably from the Hobbesian notion of transfer of power to the sovereign, as it does from Rousseau's definition of social contract as the basis of citizenship and political community. The transition from the state of nature to the social state is incomparably smoother in Tocqueville's exceptional case, such that the state of law does not rule out the natural state, but emerges alongside it. For the law does not arise as a collective response to a conflict which it takes upon itself to dissipate, rather it emerges spontaneously, so to say, as supplement to a conflict-free natural state. Indeed, the only means to discern the transition--which is also the ground of difference between the natives and the new immigrants--is the presence of work. The law of the community amounts to the work ethic, the practice of which presupposes entitlement to land by each citizen.

6. This implies not only that citizenship rights become conditioned on property of land, as Behdad maintains, but, what is equally important, that the migrant must be territorialized in order to become a citizen. To put differently, although the ideal democracy necessarily depends on immigration to realize the rupture with the social and political heritage of Europe, it nonetheless demands the territorialization of the immigrants in the very next step as the condition for citizenship. [1] I regard this land-bound destiny attached to the normative narrative of assimilation as a significant input on the treatment of mobility in the current debate on migration in the US. Perception of mobility as incongruous with citizenship has the implication that a case such as the migrant farm workers' in the border states, who shift back and forth between the US and their country of origin, is not even considered as pertinent for citizen rights. Similarly, the arithmetic concerning the number of years a migrant must have stayed in the country to be eligible for candidacy for citizenship gives rise to long debates in the Congress, resulting in proposals that infinitely defer the acquisition of even permanent residence. A yet more crucial problem that pervades the current debate on migration, though noticed only by a minority among theorists and activists, is the conditioning of rights on migrants' employment status. Even at the forefront of migrants' rights organizing, a slogan such as "workers not criminals" can set the direction of mobilizations. In Tocqueville we seem to find, among other things, the clues for how the work ethic passes for social contract in the very institution of citizenship.

7. The third and fourth chapters of A Forgetful Nation establish the key moments in the genealogy of historical, sociological, and medicinal discourses on immigration and their effects on the regimes of government and control of migrants. Behdad traces the departure from the founding myth of a homogeneous Puritan community--of which he offers a more complete picture through literary works of Créveceour, Whitman and others--towards a historically grounded account that allows for the diverse ethnicities of successive arrivals. In marking the moments of shift in the genealogy the author specially underlines the economic and political underpinnings of the transformation towards a cultural pluralism. The non-chronological order of the text serves to support his argument about the continuous vacillation of national identity between exclusionary and pluralist dispositions, without a definitive resolution favoring either direction.

8. The first radical departure from the early founding myth envisioned by Tocqueville appears as late as 1950s in Handlin's historical work The Uprooted, a text that would induce concrete political effects. The latter half of chapter three discusses Handlin's attack on a series of paradoxes in Tocquevillean assumptions. The Uprooted, which is the textual influence behind Kennedy's A Nation of Immigrants, does not only dissolve the myth of homogeneous ethnicity of the early settlers, it also undertakes a class analysis to demonstrate the inequalities that accompanied immigrants to the new continent, in contrast to the ideal conditions of equality that Tocqueville would have us believe. Particularly noteworthy in this account is the import of the category of indentured labor to the very roots of the 'agrarian democracy,' as the masses of immigrants that cannot afford their passage to the new continent find themselves forced to work in the farms or factories belonging to the vessel owners under exploitative terms. Behdad traces the effects of this belated acknowledgement of cultural diversity, as well as the introduction of a political-economic dimension to the issue of immigration in Handlin's account, on policies promoting immigration during the Kennedy government. Most important among these is the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that abolished the notion of 'undesirable aliens' and the racist quotas on migrants from eastern and southern Europe as well as Asia that had been in effect since the 1924 National Origins Act. This turn towards pluralism, however, entails less than an overthrow of the restriction criteria on migration. Indeed, as Behdad carefully observes, the new cultural pluralism serves to occlude the hierarchization and selection of migrants on the basis of class. Although the new law is indifferent about the migrants' origin, its selection criteria, stated in Kennedy's 1963 proposal, are "the skills of the immigrants and their relation to our need".

9. The fourth chapter brings into view two of the less well-known moments in the genealogy of immigration discourse in the US: the mid-19 th century Know-Nothings movement and the modernist discourse of hygiene prevalent at the beginning of the 20 th century. Behdad suggests reading these two exclusionary discourses in counterpoint, the one directed at the political and religious orientations of migrants, the other completely aimed at the control of the body, justified by the newly emerging medicinal discourse. The 19 th century proponents of the unsuitability of migrants for the American democratic polity base their argument on the latter's allegiance to authoritative power structures in their country of origin. This is supplemented by the economic argument that migrants cause a fall in wage levels and thus upset the equilibrium historically established in the nation between capitalists and workers--the continuing practice of slavery in the same era notwithstanding.

10. On the other hand, the establishment of a national institution for hygiene, the US Public Health Service, at the beginning of the 20th century provides a perfect example of how a technique of biopolitical control over the population can become an effective tool in drawing the boundary between citizens and outsiders alongside its function of regulating the populace at large. This example serves as the metaphor of the double function of any regime of border control, as simultaneously serving the purpose of distinguishing the citizens from the undocumented, "illegal" others, from bodies without rights--hence determining who will be denied citizenship--while also exerting indirect control over those that are admitted to the polity, or are endowed with partial rights. To put differently, regimes of border control do not only function through exclusionary means, but through the disciplining of those that they admit inside the borders as well. This close monitoring, which was justified by a medicinal discourse in the early 20 th century as it is by reasons of   "state's security" today, has the effect of intimidating the masses and rendering them susceptible to an obedient role in social relations. The discipline produced as the side effect of exclusionary discourse and policies can thus prove politically expedient, leading to what Étienne Balibar has extensively discussed as the regime of "inclusion by illegalization" (2004: chs 3, 4, and 9).

11. At this point we are equipped to summarize the core argument around which Behdad's analysis is structured: pro-immigration policies and multi-culturalist discourses in the US have been historically associated with economic-political conjunctures that demanded an inflow of migrant labor; moreover the particular type of labor that is in demand at a given time has had a determining effect on which specific idiom of multi-culturalism will prevail--ranging from a discourse on selective immigration providing for the nation's need for professionals, through the nation's hospitality toward the politically persecuted (during the cold war), to the need for mass unskilled labor for "jobs Americans won't do". While it is important to notice the co-determination between the cultural and the economic-political planes, this is not to suggest that the pro-immigration discourse alternates with the nativist sentiment from one period to another as a result of economic dictates. Behdad opposes this cyclical view, arguing instead that the relation between the discursive and the economic-political instances is more complicated, and that the anti-immigration discourses do not disappear but exist alongside pro-migrant pluralism even at periods when an influx of migrant labor is the economically expedient policy. The recourse to the Freudian concept of "disavowal" carries the analysis thus far. But to see what is at stake in this co-existence of contradictory discourses takes one more step: the survival of anti-immigrant sentiments alongside the actual influx of migrant labor, encouraged or at least tolerated by the prevalent official discourse, serves to keep the mass of migrants at an undecidable status with respect to the citizens, an undecidability that becomes immediately convertible to economic relations as lower wages and insecure work contracts. In his refutation of the cyclical view Behdad thus comes close to acknowledging the link between the aporia characterizing migration discourses--juridical as well as cultural, in the current context--and the precarious status in which the migrant labor is suspended. [2]

12. Through an analysis conducted on a multiplicity of discursive planes Behdad puts together a genealogy of discourses pertaining to immigration that is as convincing as open ended, and hence suggestive of the directions in which it can be pursued further--not only backwards towards the archive of past discourses and legislations, but also in search of their connections with the current discursive strategies deployed by the state, the public, and the migrants' movement. The guideline of Behdad's analysis is how the immigration discourse has historically played into the molding of the cultural identity of the nation, and how much flexibility that definition displays from one era to another so that it can feed off of discourses of hospitality as well as exclusionary attitudes. What is missing from this genealogical deconstruction of the national hospitality discourse, however, is an account of migrants' own struggles, at discursive and practical levels, against successive periods of restrictive legislation and regimes of control. A question that remains to be asked is: in all this genealogy of legislations, stretching from 1798 to 1996, is there no moment of transformation brought about by migrants' resistance? Despite bringing in to his analysis the 'economics of migration' as a challenge to the recuperation of immigrants' history into the national identity discourse, Behdad nonetheless relegates migrant masses to an economic relation devoid of political agency. Migrants figure in the equation at best as a contradiction between the economic demands and the will to homogeneity and closure. One way to pursue this line of thinking further would be by focusing on the struggles around the Bracero Program during the 1960s, which is one of the least addressed moments in the text, and which has a considerable relevance for the contemporary situation, where we have a recycled proposal for a 'temporary guest worker program' in the latest Senate bill.

13. Related with this, a second question that the text inspires is whether the periodic emphasis, in the official discourse, on the nation's immigrant roots can serve as a discursive tool for migrants' mobilizations today. Put differently, does the 'nation of immigrants' discourse have no outlet but to enhance a self-image of national benevolence? Or, is there a possiblity that remembering the history of uprootedness could effect a change in the perception of who constitutes the political community? Answering this question requires inscribing onto the discursive genealogy the ways in which migrants' struggles have historically effected political change, and the role of coalitions between different migrant communities in these struggles. Going back to the snapshots from the 2006 demonstrations with which I began the essay, solidarities displayed between migrant communities of different eras, a good case of which was seen in Chicago where thousands of Polish- and Irish-Americans supported the march, may provide a counter instance of how citizenship can be re-thought from the standpoint of migration.

14. Due to the absence of a perspective on migrants' own discursive and practical interventions the text's analysis of discourses of immigration remains limited to a humanist stance. For this reason, when Behdad discloses the economic and political rationale behind the state's pro-immigration policies, such as those of the 1960s, his deconstructive criticism amounts to the state's divergence from its expressed humanistic motive. Thus the analysis ultimately seems to call for a completion of that humanist promise, that is to say, the overcoming of an original disavowal. Defined in these ethical terms, however, the discursive field of immigration still indicates the citizenry as the only party having political agency and discretion on the issue. Nevertheless, the genealogy Behdad offers us in A Forgetful Nation opens up directions to think about the discursive strategies of the current mobilization of migrants in the US and elsewhere—movements that bear the political possibility of re-constitution of citizenship.


Ayse Deniz Temiz has contributed articles and translations to the journals Otonom, Siyahi and Birikim published in Turkey. She is currently completing her dissertation on the literary and political articulations of postcolonial migrancy in the Department of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York, U.S.A.å


1. For a discussion of how through mobility migration poses a challenge to
established notions of citizenship see Sandro Mezzadra's "Citizenship in

2. Those who approach the problem from a labor struggle perspective, of which a major proponent in the US is George Caffentzis, extensively discuss this issue of how the juridical level feeds into the social relations of production in which the migrant worker is inserted. See Caffentzis' "The "Si Se Puede" Insurrection: A Class Analysis" in


Balibar, E. (2004), We, The People of Europe, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

© borderlands ejournal 2006



To top of page to top of page spacer
ISSN 1447-0810