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Immigration in Historical Context

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            As Winter Break draws to a close I find myself revisiting the theme about which I wrote my very first blog for Macmillan Community: how to address a divisive political issue within the context of the undergraduate history classroom. Recently the national debate about immigration was accelerated by controversial comments attributed to the President. I’m anticipating that my students will raise questions about the history of immigration when we resume classes next week so I’d like to share several web-based resources that faculty might use in class or offer to students as a way to talk politics with historical context.

These three websites offer sources for both primary and secondary examination of immigration to the United States. The Population Reference Bureau, in particular, is a fabulous resource for statistical information about the waves of immigration that have occurred over the past two-hundred years.

Library of Congress Immigration: Challenges for New Americans

Harvard University Library Open Collections Program: Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930  

Population Reference Bureau “Trends in Migration to the United States”

Once students have a better sense of how important immigration has been to our nation’s history and development, it is critical for them to understand that current attitudes towards immigration are not historically unique. Comparing political cartoons from past eras to what students may find in contemporary news sources is one interesting way to place the debate in context. These two websites share visual examples and resources:

Historical Society of Pennsylvania Anti-Immigration Attitudes

“Analyzing Anti-Immigrant Attitudes in Political Cartoons”  

There has been no shortage of opinion or “perspective” pieces on the topic published in the last several months including Hidetaka Hirota in the Washington Post (January 16, 2018) and Kevin D. Williamson in the National Review (August 6, 2017). I recommend that faculty seek out a variety of perspectives and then allow students to use their developing skills as historians to discuss and analyze.

Time permitting, it is also worthwhile for students examine the homelands of people who came to this country in earlier waves of immigration to compare social, economic and political conditions. Ask students to research conditions in Ireland, Italy, Germany or other nations from which large numbers of men and women entered the United States in the nineteenth century and then compare those conditions to the modern-day regions from which immigrants seek to enter the United States. Then, provide students with resources that consider the impact of immigrants on the communities they join. Historians Marilynn Johnson and Deborah Levenson at Boston College have created Global Boston, a website that offers insight into the history of immigrants in Boston, for example, and shares concrete examples of neighborhoods that have been dramatically influenced by the large immigrant population. Finally, Reimagining Migration contains web-based sources to help educators work with students who have their own migration stories to share.

           Remember, above all, that while immigration is an important historical topic, it is one that may be deeply personal to students. In a typical classroom at my community college, for example, I have a diverse mix of first and second generation Americans seated side-by-side with American-born students whose beliefs about the need for immigration reform have been influenced by their families’ economic insecurities. As humanities faculty we are uniquely positioned to help students on both sides of the debate to see the importance of their shared humanity and their connection to both the past and the future.

3 Comments
Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee

I'm just curious, have you been to the Tenement Musem in NYC at all? I tried to go a few months ago but the day I went it was sold out. The idea is that different immigrant dwellings are recreated and patrons can experience what life was like for: factory workers, Irish immigrants, and many other groups. I am eager to try it.

I have not been there yet but "Will & Grace" did an episode a few weeks back that portrayed a similar museum experience, which was interesting!  This first week of classes students have been most interested in talking about the controversial notion of slaves as "immigrants."  My Black History students are looking forward to tackling that argument in the coming weeks as we learn about the slave trade and talk about the idea of migration as a choice versus forced migration.

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee

That should be a spirited class! Tell us how it goes. Also, love Will & Grace and I know just which episode you are referencing. Smiley Happy

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.