The Retrenchment of the Immigrant Nation: nationalism in Australia and the USA

One of the most striking comparisons between Australia and the USA is that both states are founded on mass immigration from Europe. Whilst immigration in the US has historically been more diverse than in Australia (where most early settlers arrived from Great Britain), in both nations the indigenous population has been reduced to an outcast minority in the face of overwhelming European settlement.

Early Sydney: European immigrants quickly moulded Australia into a dispersed version of Europe
Early Sydney: European immigrants quickly moulded Australia into a dispersed version of Europe

In recent years, America has seen a massive increase in immigrants from Latin America, particularly Mexico, whilst Australia has seen an influx of East Asian immigrants, particularly Chinese and Indian. Yet it is these divergent immigration patterns, different to the European immigration on which these two countries were established, that has called into question the openness of each country’s borders.

In the US, anti-immigrant sentiment has increased significantly in recent years as large non-English speaking populations willing to work menial jobs for minimum wages have arrived in the country. This development has fostered a nationalistic, exclusivist trend amongst many Americans which defies the country’s image as an open, welcoming land where freedom abounds. The decision of Mitt Romney to run on a fiercely anti-immigration ticket during his bid for election last year was a response, albeit overboiled, to the perception that America is keen to halt its historic flows of immigrants.

Anger is primarily directed at 'illegal' immigrants in America
Anger is primarily directed at ‘illegal’ immigrants in America

In Australia, the arrival of Asian immigrants in many ways parallels the influx of Latin Americans in America. Unlike the original British colonists that formed the basis of modern Australia, these immigrants have become an alien and, in many ways, unwelcome presence in the Oceanian state. Furthermore, the desperate attempts of asylum seekers to enter Australia from Southeast Asia has brought the matter of immigration to a public and political head in recent months. Many of these asylum seekers travel from as far afield as the Middle East, where there war-torn lands are no longer a safe place to live. Arriving on precarious and overloaded vessels, many of them are detained on arrival and held in detention centres whilst a long and often unsuccessful bid for residency ensues. Sympathy for their plight has been restricted to a few civil rights campaigners and Julia Gillard’s government is apparently clueless as to how to resolve the situation effectively and fairly.


It is ironic that for two peoples whose ancestors immigrated to a foreign land and virtually destroyed the native populations and their livelihoods before settling into an unprecedented era of demographic and economic expansion, an incursion of immigrants from “new” and “unnatural” destinations has been seen as an unacceptable challenge to societal survival.

Whilst immigration levels have undoubtedly got to be brought under control, the treatment of migrants who have been given official residency in America and Australia makes a mockery of the founding characteristics of each state. Whilst they may have turned their backs on Europe long ago, the trumpeting of European ancestry as superior to other parts of the world, coupled with an inability to accept the contemporary realities of population movements, renders many American and Australian people arrogant and hypocritical.

Whilst anti-immigrant sentiment is by no means exclusive to these two countries, their particular historical composition makes their nationalist arguments, and their racist undertones, particularly difficult to accept.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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