Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent memo directs Department of Justice attorneys to consider felony prosecution when a person is accused of entering into a fraudulent marriage to obtain legal immigration status.
This most recent example of the Trump administration’s aggressive stance on immigration seems to be informed by a particular fear that immigrants are infiltrating our bedrooms.
Donald Trump announced his campaign for the presidency by casting Mexicans as rapists. Others, such as Act for America founder Brigitte Gabriel, warns that Muslim immigrants will sexually assault “your wife, your daughter, your girlfriend, your mother.”
This fearmongering is not only wrong (as two recent studies found that immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than U.S. citizens), but it also ignores the history of the United States.
European settlers used marriage, rape, and murder to enrich themselves.
Contrary to what Disney would have you believe, Pocahontas’s story is not one of a happy young woman with animal friends, who dove off mountains. Rather, the oral history of the Mattaponi tribe tells of a woman repeatedly used and abused for financial gain. English colonists led by Samuel Argall kidnapped Pocahontas, separated her from her infant son, killed her husband, Kocoum, and kept her hostage for a year to deter retaliation from her tribe. She was 15 or 16 at the time and was raped while in captivity, possibly repeatedly, becoming pregnant with her second child.
Some historians claim her subsequent marriage to John Rolfe was out of love. But it is more likely that Rolfe, a widower nearly twice her age, married Pocahontas to gain access to her tribe’s secrets for curing tobacco (his tobacco became a sensation afterward). Rolfe later took Pocahontas to England to show off his friendship with Native nations and obtain further financial support for the colonies. She was homesick but died before she could return, at the tender age of 21.
Lesser known is the story of women in the Osage tribe who were targeted for their oil wealth in the early 20th century in Oklahoma.
A new book by David Grann chronicles how white men like Ernest Burkhart married into Osage families and then murdered family members to gain rights to oil-rich land.
Ernest Burkhart befriended, married and had children with Mollie Burkhart. He studied her native language so he could speak with her in it and told her he could not live without her. Yet, he conspired to kill her mother Lizzie as well as her sisters Minnie, Rita, and Anna who died by poison, arson, and a gunshot in the back of the head, respectively. There were so many people who directly profited from or who were silently complicit in these crimes against the Osage that the murders continued with impunity for years.
Those fanning the flames of xenophobia in the United States play on fears that America will look and sound different because of immigrants flooding into our communities. There is an irony in casting immigrants as bogeymen who are here to bamboozle and assault our fair maidens. That irony is that our country’s history is marked by conduct on the part of European settlers that is far from honorable. Perhaps the reason we are so quick to question the intentions of our new neighbors is a shared sense of guilt about the darker pages of our history. Perhaps our energy would be better spent getting behind the Native American civil rights movement.
Negar Katirai is an Assistant Clinical Professor and the Director of the Community Law Group at the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law. She is a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.