Embroidered image "Pipicha" by Cinthya Santos Briones, from the chapter "Migrant Herbalism" in New Narratives on the Peopling of America: Immigration, Race and Dispossession.

Pipicha | Cinthya Santos Briones, from the chapter “Migrant Herbalism” in New Narratives on the Peopling of America: Immigration, Race and Dispossession (Hopkins Press, 2024)

New Narratives on the Peopling of America: Immigration, Race, and Dispossession (Hopkins Press, 2024), a collection of 23 essays and artistic works, goes beyond conventional accounts of immigration to grapple with a fundamental question: Who are the people of the United States, and how did they get here?

In answer, editors T. Alexander Aleinikoff and Alexandra Délano Alonso brought together academics, activists, journalists, legal scholars, and artists to reconsider received wisdoms of national identity and belonging. The resulting volume situates immigration within a larger context of forced displacement and dispossession, and enlarges our understanding of collective history as one that must include many stories, told by many voices.

It’s a conversation that started at the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, co-founded and previously co-directed by Délano Alonso, and now headed by Aleinikoff. The editors bring this spirit of dialogue and considerable expertise to New Narratives. Aleinikoff was co-chair of President Barack Obama’s Immigration Task Force in 2008 and United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees from 2010–2015, and is now dean of the New School for Social Research. Délano Alonso is a professor of global studies at The New School; her current research focuses on migrant solidarity practices across Mexico and the United States.

Paloma Griffin, a New School PhD candidate in politics, sat down with the editors to discuss the possibilities and challenges of pursuing a pluralistic account of American identity.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Paloma Griffin: One of the most unique things about the book is that each chapter invokes a very different narrative structure. Unlike traditional policy analysis or political theory, it includes really intimate and personal narratives, storytelling, art, poetry, and photography. What do you think this spectrum of narrative structure adds to the topics at hand?

Alexandra Délano Alonso: This was a project not just about how narratives are constructed, but how narratives are communicated—by who and to whom. Part of my contribution to the project was to bring in activists, migrants directly affected by border violences, and artists, voices that are not always heard and also not necessarily in direct or deep conversation with scholarly accounts. I think personal stories help us all reflect on our stake in this conversation—to recognize that everybody’s implicated in some way. Allison Dorsey’s essay touches on this question of how we move with empathy, not just in the sense of understanding the other person’s experience but knowing that whatever affects their experience is also affecting the whole of society. The variety of narrative forms allows this imagination and this mutuality to be expressed more fully.

Griffin: Throughout this book, you bring in populations that are typically siloed by American history: white settlers, white immigrants, slaves, non-white immigrants, religious minorities, sexual and gender minorities, undocumented migrants, and Indigenous people. This is a big task—I wonder why you brought in all of these accounts?

Délano Alonso: I think what’s exciting about this project is that it’s not meant as a final word. It’s called “new narratives,” and the hope is that other narratives continue to emerge. So I see it more as an opening. Although the book is published by an academic press, we are hoping that by including photography, art, poetry, and non-academic authors we are opening up that wider conversation. 

Griffin: I’m really interested in how you discuss both Indigeneity and migration. So often, these populations are found to be in direct conflict with one another. This book does acknowledge that conflict, but it doesn’t pit them against each other by any means. What connects them for you—a shared struggle for citizenship or rights or something more?

T. Alexander Aleinikoff: When people recognize that they can make common cause on issues of economic and social justice, on telling their stories of exclusion and marginalization together, then we can have a real, progressive movement here, one that unites around accounts of settler colonialism and the like. Now, to my mind, that’s not enough. We can’t just tell stories of people who have felt marginalized. We also need to tell the stories of millions of immigrants who have come willingly, lawfully, happily, and have made the country their home, as well as people who have been here for many generations. 

Délano Alonso: What is clear from many of the accounts in the book is that a conversation around immigration cannot be siloed, because there are forms of structural violence and legacies of colonialism that affect migrants and citizens alike. And if change is going to come, these have to be addressed together, at a systemic level. 

Griffin: I’d like to talk about dispossession, which you included in the title of this book. It’s a word that is typically associated with Indigenous peoples in conversations about healing and repair. What impact do you think dispossession has had on the development of our country and American identity? 

Aleinikoff: Dispossession, to me, obviously relates to the loss of land and territory, and settler colonialism. That has really important implications for law and policy because the entire legal system is based on the idea that Congress and the President have total power to structure who the people of the United States are. The Fourteenth Amendment prevented this structuring based on race, but in terms of immigration and regulation of Indigenous peoples, we can see this total power is still in place. Once you start from a perspective that the current claim of possession itself is problematic, it opens up new possibilities. It gives you a real lever to question that total authority exercised by people who really can’t claim, legally speaking, “good title” to the land that they have. Secondly, dispossession is not just about land, it’s about culture, language, viewpoints. This goes beyond Indigeneity: the central narratives that we’re questioning here and problematizing have attempted to ask people to dispossess themselves of their stories, their ways of being in the world.

Griffin: As someone who is both Indigenous and also comes from a migrant family, the question of dispossession can feel very alienating. Possession is not something that I particularly identify with in North America. But it’s useful to consider dispossession in much more complex and perhaps compound ways, including, as you bring up, around loss of language. For instance, I’m not a fluent Spanish speaker—my family chose to give that up so that I could be here and be accepted. 

Délano Alonso: Marco Saavedra’s essay about the cover art doesn’t mention the word dispossession directly, but he has, in other spaces, raised the question, What if we “dispossess” ourselves of our privilege and our citizenship? What if we all consider ourselves “illegal”? Illegal in the sense that we have to be outside of the law because this law is immoral, and because this is stolen land. 

Griffin: Some of my favorite interventions in this book are where immigrant authors grapple with their own hopes and dreams, their fears for America. Why is it so important to address those fears? How does doing so challenge the narratives that currently exist?

Délano Alonso: Ruth Milkman’s chapter centers the question of how to address both fears and opportunities at the same time. The fears of those who are already settled or who have had privileges and advantages historically. If those fears are not addressed and reckoned with alongside the narratives around opportunity and solidarity with other groups, then they will not be heard, and there’s not even a space for a conversation.

Griffin: I spent a lot of this book wondering to myself, What is the consequence of lacking a cohesive and shared story? What is the value of a narrative for a country like the United States, and what does it do if we lack one?

Aleinikoff: I’m not sure we’ll ever agree on a full, cohesive narrative. What we have to do is be willing to live with a pluralism of narratives that can all tell different parts of a story. We’re not a melting pot: we’re a multicultural society with many understandings of who we are and how we got here. What we should be working against is a single narrative that suppresses and disrespects the stories of others. 

Délano Alonso: It’s more about recognizing what has been excluded, what has been invisibilized, and the cost that has in terms of oppression. One of the chapters I really like, by Maggie Loredo and Jill Anderson, puts forward this idea of larger stories that shelter the complexities and contradictions, that make space for connections and common ground across different experiences and struggles. We can see some of these openings  in different spaces and practices documented in the book. In my chapter, I draw some of these examples from my experiences living in  Queens. I end with a Walt Whitman quote about the United States as “the greatest poem.” I took out “the greatest,” which has an imperial ring, but I find it helpful to think of any national myth as a poem with a lot of space for interpretation—space for other voices to enter the conversation, silences that can be filled with new things or change over time. 

Aleinikoff: It’s such a lovely use of the Whitman quote. And there’s another well-known Whitman phrase: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large and contain multitudes.” A number of chapters (including those by Justin Gest, and Eboo Patel and Neil Agarwal) address the issue of how the nation continues to try to render some groups in “white.” Patel’s chapter shows that Muslim symbols and myths can be at the core of our understanding of the US as well. We can move from being a Christian nation to one that includes a Judeo-Christian ethic, and now the Abrahamic religions, while still being America.

Griffin: A common thing that I hear from students and colleagues is the idea that no just, fair, or equal country can be built on a history of discrimination and exclusion. It’s always a bit disheartening to hear them say that there’s no way that this country can be better. How would you respond to that idea? If a student picked up this book tomorrow, would you hope that they would walk away with a different answer?

Aleinikoff: I think that’s wrong, because however poorly something started, it doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. You learn the lessons of the past: you learn that slavery was wrong. You learn that pushing people off land was wrong. You learn that deporting people was wrong. And you make changes. But the idea that something started wrong doesn’t mean it can’t ever be right. Every country started with some wrongs, in the sense that they were all based on some kind of inclusive story to justify the occupation of some piece of land. The goal is to make it better: to create a more perfect union. 

Délano Alonso: I would hope that readers come up with inspiration and ideas of what is possible and what we can each do in the face of an issue that is so complex, challenging and, at times, overwhelming. There are a lot of examples here from people who have thought about these questions very deeply and who have lived these experiences and developed pathways for resistance, pathways for change—without any romantic ideal that “everything’s going to be great.” There will always be violence and forms of oppression and discrimination. And the question is how we identify them, how we explain them and respond to them, recognizing what is at stake for all. 

Read more about the cover art for New Narratives on the Peopling of America in an essay by artist Marco Saavedra.