Erika Lee: The New Xenophobia and the Role of the Public Scholar Today
Today’s essay on #immigration comes from Erika Lee, Distinguished McKnight University Professor, the Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History, and the Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. She is author of At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943 (University of North Carolina Press, 2003) and The Making of Asian America: A History (Simon & Schuster, 2015).
The New Xenophobia and the Role of the Public Scholar TodayIn my U.S. Immigration History class this semester, I begin each session with a roundup of weekly immigration news. We are struggling to keep up. One week of immigration news during the Trump administration feels like one year. Take my class on March 7, for example. We were studying Mexican immigration and the U.S.-Mexican borderlands, and the readings covered U.S. imperialism, the Mexican-American War, the long history of U.S. intervention in Latin America, the uneven incorporation of Mexican Americans into the U.S., the mass deportation campaigns of the 1930s, and “Operation Wetback” in 1954.
That week’s news mirrored and repeated history in disturbing ways. I first linked to Kelly Lytle Hernández’s op-ed, “America’s Deportation Policy is Rooted in Racism,” published in The Conversation. We read about the arrest of dreamer Daniela Vargas by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Jackson, Mississippi, after she had spoken out at a rally denouncing the new immigration raids happening across the country. We discussed an article from an Indian newspaper describing the fear that many were feeling after two Indian immigrants were shot dead in Kansas and South Carolina in late February and early March. We reviewed President Trump’s speech to the joint session of Congress as well as the full text of the new executive order on travel (or the Muslim ban) that had just been signed the day before. And we ended by studying Housing Secretary Ben Carson’s statement that African slaves were “immigrants.”
These days, the relevance of U.S. immigration history—who we have welcomed and who we have banned; who we have resettled and who we have left behind; how we began to enforce the border and how the “border” has moved into the interior—has never been more important. For immigration historians, the past, present, and future are colliding.
As someone who writes, educates, and talks about America’s long and complicated relationship with immigration and as a granddaughter of Chinese immigrants whose lives were upended by earlier discriminatory immigration laws, Trump’s presidency weighs heavily on me. I am constantly asking myself: what can I do? What is the job of a public scholar today? How can we have an impact on the national conversation, on policy, and on change? Of course, I am not alone. Many of us are organizing and acting. We’re all asking how our work matters and how we can have an impact.
I have always been an active public scholar. Over the years, I’ve served as a consultant on numerous museum, film, and interactive and educational projects. I have done TV, film, call-in radio, podcast, and print interviews. I’ve written op-eds that have appeared in publications like the Los Angeles Times, Time, and USA Today. I’ve talked to diverse audiences across the country and abroad. But the urgency of my public engagement has changed dramatically in recent months.
In the days after the election, my email inbox overflowed with messages from immigration scholars and advocates across the nation: “What will happen now?” Elliott Young asked a group of us. “What are we going to do when the deportation trains and the mass immigrant detention camps start?” We worried about shrinking refugee admissions, the end of DACA, and the creation of new ways to detain, deport, and otherwise terrify targeted immigrant communities. “We know this history well,” Kelly Lytle Hernández reminded us. She’s right.
Historians Answer the Call to Action
History matters. And America’s complicated immigration history matters more than ever before. But it can’t matter if we don’t effectively share that knowledge with a wider public. There is a great deal of scholarship on the history of immigration, but so little makes it into the public realm. Americans constantly discount, obscure, or willingly forget our long history of xenophobia, banning and deporting immigrants, building walls, and “extreme vetting.” Instead, we focus on the more positive narrative of welcoming, assimilation, and generational mobility.
The idea to create the #ImmigrationSyllabus came to me during that frenzied week after the election. I had long been inspired by the #StandingRockSyllabus, #TrumpSyllabus, #FergusonSyllabus, and #CharlestonSyllabus that harnessed the power of social media to create and disseminate knowledge about these pressing social issues. I proposed the idea of an #ImmigrationSyllabus to my fellow immigration scholars, including Maria Cristina Garcia, President of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society. The response was unanimously enthusiastic. Of course, the logistics were more complicated. Fortunately, a number of us were already attending the Social Science History Association Meeting in Chicago the next weekend, and so five of us met and formed an organizing committee: Madeline Hsu, Adam Goodman, Maddalena Marinari, and Julian Lim. Maria Cristina Garcia and Evan Taparata joined us later. We drafted a goal statement and brainstormed ideas for content, organization, and project logistics.
We hoped to create a resource that could be helpful to activists, policy makers, writers, artists, and citizens in addition to our fellow educators. Over the next six weeks, we asked colleagues to share syllabi, we created a course outline, filled it in, had conference calls, added topics, readings, primary sources, and multimedia selections, revised and repeated the process several times. We gathered feedback from colleagues over the winter break and revised again. A team of colleagues at the University of Minnesota Libraries built the website in record time.
The Spread of Historical Awareness
Within weeks of launching, the #ImmigrationSyllabus had over 35,000 page views in 75 different countries. We’ve gotten emails from community members asking how they can “take” the course. Librarians at the University of Wisconsin created an exhibit featuring the syllabus and many of the books we included in it. University of California Press created a supplementary edition.The website of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS), now includes teaching modules paired with topics in the syllabus. We’ve been featured in newspapers, the American Historical Association magazine, and online.
As the enthusiastic response to the #ImmigrationSyllabus demonstrates, there is a real need for public scholars to extend their work beyond the academy and experiment with new ways of communicating big ideas. Historians are uniquely qualified to be part of the important national conversations happening today. We must answer the call. Our work is just beginning.
Erika Lee is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor, the Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History, and the Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. She is author of three award-winning books in U.S. immigration and Asian American history: At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943 (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (co-authored with Judy Yung, Oxford University Press, 2010), and most recently, The Making of Asian America: A History (Simon & Schuster, 2015). She is currently working on a history of xenophobia in the United States. At the IHRC, she directs the Immigrant Stories digital storytelling and archiving project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. She co-organized the #ImmigrationSyllabus project, an educational resource and website containing essential topics, readings, and multimedia sources that offer historical perspectives to contemporary immigration debates. She has been honored with the 2017 Dean’s Medal from the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota, the 2016 Pioneer Award from OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, and the 2015 Immigrant Heritage Award from the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.
- During the 1930s, 1-2 million people were deported from the United States, including an estimated 60% who were American citizens. In 1954, another one million were deported.↩
- “America’s Deportation Policy is Rooted in Racism,” published in The Conversation, 2/27/17.↩
- “Dreamer Detained After Expressing Fears of Being Detained in Mississippi,” LA Times, 3/1/17.↩
- “An Indian community that sends the most workers and students to the US now fears America,” Quartz India, 3/1/17; “FBI investigating Kansas triple shooting that killed 1 as a hate crime,” ABC News, 3/1/17. One victim, software engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla, hailed from Hyderabad, which, according to the Brookings Institution, sent the largest number of STEM students (20,800) to the United States from 2008-2012.↩
- “Here’s everything Donald Trump said about immigration in his speech to Congress,” Washington Post, 3/1/17; Full Text: “Trump’s New Executive Order On Travel, Annotated,” NPR, 3/6/17.↩
- “Ben Carson Calls Slaves ‘Immigrants’ in First HUD Remarks,” NBC News, 3/6/17.↩
- As Chad Williams, one of the creators of the #CharlestonSyllabus explained, a #syllabus can be a “vital tool for educators throughout the world.” http://www.aaihs.org/charlestonsyllabus-and-the-work-of-african-american-history/↩
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