Publication Date

March 1, 2017

Perspectives Section



Current Events in Historical Context

Immigrant-rights advocates march in downtown Los Angeles on May Day, 2006. This image is the backdrop of the #ImmigrationSyllabus homepage. Jonathan McIntosh/via Wikimedia CommonsThe e-mails started flooding historian Erika Lee’s inbox the week after the election of Donald J. Trump. Lee, who is director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota and has written extensively about US immigration history, recalls that her fellow scholars had “questions like ‘what are we going to do when the deportation trains start running again?’” After all, Trump had promised throughout his campaign to deport “illegal” immigrants, build a wall on the US-Mexico border, and end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which allows some undocumented immigrants who entered the country under age 16 to apply for work permits. “Many of us started organizing right away to participate in the sanctuary campus movement,” Lee said, referring to the nationwide effort by students and faculty to designate universities as sanctuary spaces that protect undocumented students. But she also started thinking about doing something that was “not just on our individual campuses.” She found herself asking: “What is the role of the public intellectual right now? What’s the role of historians specifically, and in particular immigration historians?”

One way to arrive at an answer, she decided, would be to team up with other historians to create #ImmigrationSyllabus, an online resource containing links to primary documents, oral history interviews, scholarly readings, and multimedia. The syllabus follows in the footsteps of other crowdsourced reading lists created in the wake of the Ferguson uprising, the shooting at Charleston, and Trump’s election. As Chad Williams (Brandeis Univ.), one of the creators of #CharlestonSyllabus, wrote on the blog Black Perspectives, the #syllabus format harnesses the power of “social media and the blogosphere” to produce and disseminate knowledge about a particular issue. A #syllabus, Williams wrote, can become a “vital tool for educators throughout the world” to help place current events in a historical context and to use in classrooms. In refining the #ImmigrationSyllabus, Lee and her fellow historians had similar goals—to create a resource that would “help educators, activists, and citizens in their teaching, advocacy, and public discussions about immigration in the United States.”

Within two weeks of its launch on January 26—the day before President Trump’s executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States—#ImmigrationSyllabus had approximately 25,000 page views. Lee describes the response as “frankly overwhelming.” Besides reactions from individuals who want to “take the course,” the syllabus has garnered positive feedback from libraries that have used it to create book exhibits or are working with publishers to open access to content in the syllabus that is behind paywalls. The website of the AHA affiliate Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS), which helped create the syllabus, now includes teaching modules paired with topics in the syllabus. Madeline Hsu (Univ. of Texas at Austin), president-elect of IEHS, also plans to build on the syllabus by developing resources to teach immigration history in AP and dual-­enrollment history courses.

Lee hopes that the syllabus will attract interested members of the public regardless of their political affiliation. Yet Mitch Pearlstein, founder of the conservative Center of the American Experiment, faulted the syllabus website in the Minneapolis Star Tribune for using as its backdrop an image of a “Justice for All” banner from a 2006 immigration rights protest in Los Angeles. Lee hopes, however, that with its combination of topics, reading lists, and “links to primary sources, archives, first-person accounts, and documentary films,” the syllabus can function as a “broad educational resource” that will educate students as well as “the average citizen who explores the material and engages with it on their own terms, from their own perspectives, and comes to their own conclusion.”

There is a great deal of scholarship on the history of immigration, but Lee worries that not all of it is making it into the public consciousness. “I think it has a lot to do with America’s exceptionalist understanding of itself and in particular our immigrant past,” she says. “We’re constantly discounting, obscuring, or willingly forgetting” chapters of exclusion in immigration history, according to Lee, “so we can focus on the more positive narrative of welcoming, and assimilation, and generational mobility.”

The ebb and flow of nativism is one aspect of America’s past that immigration historians view as a precedent to the present moment. “Anti-immigrant sentiment existed before the United States was even a country,” says Anita Casavantes Bradford, professor of history and chair of the Committee on Equity and Inclusion for Undocumented Students at the University of California, Irvine. For example, in 1751, Benjamin Franklin worried that immigrants from Germany would “Germanize” Pennsylvania and turn it into a “Colony of Aliens.” German immigrants, Franklin wrote, “will never adopt our language or customs.”

“When you go into the archives and you look at the primary documents,” says Casavantes Bradford, “people said the same things about immigrants: that they were a cultural threat to our identity, that they were the parasites, that they were takers, that they were enriching themselves at the expense of ‘American’ workers.” “The historical record,” she continues, “shows that immigrants, whether they are documented or not, have been consistently a net benefit to the country.” Casavantes Bradford notes, for example, that the American economy in general, and the economy of the American Southwest in particular, “has benefited tremendously from the presence of cheap, undocumented labor.”

But according to Lee, Trump’s “use of the executive order and the executive branch to institute wide-ranging changes in all aspects of immigration policy” is new. So far, the orders have covered building a border wall, renewing emphasis on enforcing immigration laws in the interior of the United States, pausing the refugee resettlement program, instituting a travel ban, and using punitive measures such as detention and deportation. “Taken together,” Lee says, “this is unprecedented.” She points to the sweeping Immigration Act of 1924, which instituted quotas on the basis of national origins for immigrants. That law is discussed in most high school American history textbooks, but Lee says that the path to passing the act took more than a decade: Congress needed 13 years to debate the 41-volume Dillingham Commission report (1911) on the origins and impacts of immigration to the United States. The IEHS’s Hsu echoes Lee: it’s “dismaying to see [executive] power wielded so cynically and with such devastating impact” on immigrants, whose noncitizen status makes them one of the most vulnerable segments of society. “This is another reason why we need to know about history,” Hsu says.

These vicissitudes drive historians in their research and teaching, but they also advocate for students who could be affected by changes in immigration policy. One of the biggest uncertainties today is the future of DACA—ending the program was one of Trump’s campaign promises. And since DACA requires people to come out from “behind the shadows” in order to gain legal work authorization, many fear that the end of the program will lead to deportation orders against those who are registered with it. As Cindy I-Fen Cheng (Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison) recently told Inside Higher Ed, “When we say that students who registered in good faith [under DACA] are fearing imminent deportation in this political climate, it is not an overstatement.”

Casavantes Bradford believes that when universities admit undocumented students, administrators and faculty have an obligation to help them succeed. She suggests that faculty educate themselves on the issues undocumented students face, then work with their department and university to find ways to support students. These can include identifying resources on campus, maintaining student confidentiality and privacy, and reevaluating one’s use of immigration-related terminology or classroom content. “We may not as individuals have the power to transform federal immigration law or law enforcement priorities,” Casavantes Bradford says, “but as educators we do sometimes have the power to make decisions that determine whether that student earns their degree.”

Historians’ expertise, knowledge, and research, says Lee, gives them a unique perspective on the past and should have direct bearing on policy makers’ “decisions about immigration and their consequences.” “Is the travel ban a good idea or not? Well, what’s the historical precedent? How has it affected our international relations in the past?” says Lee, walking through the type of questions historians can pose and answer. Casavantes Bradford says that as a historian she doesn’t take positions on the sorts of legal restrictions that should be placed on immigration, but she does want to change how immigrants are talked about in the public sphere—to shift the conversation so it’s based on facts and empathy as opposed to “myth and uninformed emotion.” Hsu agrees. As she says, writing immigration history is “not political so much as kind of an obligation.”

is associate editor, publications, at the AHA. She tweets @kritikaldesi.

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