By Nick Johnson
In light of the Trump Administration’s ongoing rhetoric and policies regarding immigration, historians often find themselves thinking about language and its role in shaping how the public understands immigration and immigrants, both past and present. The following op-ed demonstrates the importance of language in establishing or negating the humanity and perceived worth of the people it is applied to.
In 1858–59, a wave of criminal aliens invaded Colorado.
Admittedly, some of these trespassers did not know they were breaking the law, but most of them knew the laws and simply chose to violate them. They did not request permission to come here; they did not even seek the proper channels for official approval.
When detained and questioned by the presiding authorities—in Boulder Canyon, for instance—many of these illegals claimed that they only wanted the chance to find the gold that would improve their lives. In most cases, local officers released the aliens, granting them temporary visas that expired once the resources were procured.
But by the time their visas expired, many of these trespassers liked this new land too much to leave. Plus, they knew there were not enough local police to track them all down. The illegals gleefully exploited this, forming crude, dirty, vice-ridden communities near some of the host nations’ most valuable rivers, valleys, and forests.
Yep, they just started building houses and roads and towns and farms, without even so much as consulting the local laws and regulations. They didn’t pay any taxes. Worse, these illegals did not even have the courtesy to learn the local languages and cultures or teach them to their children—they did not come to assimilate, but rather to replace the dominant culture.
Of course, the local authorities did not simply stand by and watch. Their lands had already been violated, and many of their people had died from diseases and starvation wrought by the invading hordes. Yet they did not call for rounding up and expelling the illegals, nor did they call for their extermination. Sure, some self-righteous vigilantes took it upon themselves to violently enforce the immigration laws. But by and large, leaders in these rich lands kept negotiating with the aliens’ home country, believing that if a deal could be reached on illegal immigration, everyone could live in peace.
But the illegals kept coming. They kept chopping down trees, killing all the game, and squatting on land that wasn’t theirs. They kept on living in their own little ethnic communities, celebrating their own holidays and customs, right in the middle of the people who had so graciously received them! Worse, their home government broke every immigration agreement and opened the floodgates to even more illegals.
Over time, the host nations kept absorbing wave after wave of illegal aliens, until the foreign rabble pushed the local cultures, religions, and languages to the brink of extinction. Soldiers followed the aliens, and pretty soon there was no more room for negotiating, even as some local leaders continued to try. On behalf of the illegal aliens, this foreign government then systematically conquered Colorado by murdering, subduing, or deporting its lawful citizens. As in their earlier depredations, the illegals justified all of this by saying it was their “Manifest Destiny.”
For many decades after the conquest, the illegals wrote books about their successful invasion, but they changed parts of the story to make it seem less awful. They began to use words like “settlers,” “goldseekers,” and “pioneers” to describe their criminal alien ancestors. They portrayed Colorado’s original inhabitants as lawless savages, even though their forefathers were the ones who stole, murdered, cheated, drank, and raped. Despite their ancestors’ many sins, they disguised the truth of the conquest in fancy, hollow language like “territorial expansion” and the “march of civilization.”
Worst of all, many descendants of these alien invaders of Colorado now presume to label many of the state’s recent newcomers as “illegals” and “criminals.” Those who have sat comfortably, unthinkingly, on stolen, bloodstained land for generations now support border walls and banning visitors from other nations—that is, unless the visitors look a lot like them.
Yet what do these modern newcomers want? Do they come to plunder, cheat, and murder, like the pasty illegals of old? Do they come to replace the people and culture of their new home?
No. Despite the occasional fixation on the tiny percentage of current immigrants who commit crimes, the vast majority are here to work, to educate themselves, to raise their children, and above all, live peacefully. Many at least attempt to learn and speak English, even if they retain their original languages and cultures. They pay sales and income taxes that contribute to roads, schools, and other public services—even to services that they will never get to use. And finally, many of today’s undocumented immigrants are actually leaving of their own accord, unlike the wave of illegals who came to Colorado in the 1850s.
To all Coloradans complaining about “illegal aliens”: stop your tribalist whining and support a path to citizenship, preservation of DACA, and other humane immigration reform. After all, compared to the state’s original wave of illegals, this one really isn’t so bad—just ask a historian, or better, an American Indian.
Nick Johnson is a Colorado-based historian and associate editor of the Colorado Encyclopedia.