Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Teaching Immigration

Above: The Great Hall and the "pens" at Ellis Island Immigration Station.

"The United States is a country of immigrants." While this statement is only partially accurate (as it does not recognize that many Americans are either ancestors of the first people to inhabit this land or were forced to come here as a result of slavery), it is certainly routinely stated in U.S. history classrooms (and the media). Immigration has long played a prominent and positive role in the quest-for-freedom narrative template of American history (For more on narrative templates, see the work of James Wertsch here, here, and here). Using this narrative template, students (and people) place events within a larger story that the United States was established to help people escape oppression elsewhere and join a nation that is constantly striving to protect individual freedom here (See the Neil Diamond song "America" for a good example of this (video below), past presidential speeches on immigration issues, or most textbook chapters on the topic).


Of course, we know that the American story is much more complex and that for many groups this nation was the vehicle of their oppression. Immigrants have long been used to create hysteria and further certain political goals. Perhaps dating to the United States' founding (including statements by Ben Franklin and Alexander Hamilton-yes, the guy from "that musical" and an immigrant himself), anti-immigrant propaganda has been spread through the media and politicians have used it as a wedge issue (including in party platforms) Recently, despite large declines in undocumented immigration, reducing immigration became the signature campaign promise of Donald Trump's campaign. As I write this, there is a standoff between the President and Congress over the funding of a Mexican border wall expansion, which has partially closed the federal government (now the longest in history and also widely unpopular with the American people).

How should teachers approach immigration during these troubling times for immigrants? Without a doubt, the current president's rhetoric and action has made teaching this part of the American story much more complex. Unlike previous presidents, Trump does not describe this debate as part of our ethos as nation of immigrants ("but also laws," which they always add) and within that time-honored quest-for-freedom narrative template, as Clinton, Bush, or Obama did. He does not present the experiences of present day immigrants as their attempt to seek freedom here from oppression elsewhere (interestingly, as Trumps own ancestors did, when they immigrated from Germany and Scotland to the United States).

Considering this historical and political context, in this post, I explore possible ways that teachers might present immigrants and immigration, so that it helps students have a more complex understanding of the nation's past and how that influences the present.

Above: Downtown Framingham, which has long been an immigrant community.

However, I should note that this topic is very personal for me. For most of my career as a high school social studies teacher, I taught in Framingham, Massachusetts (above). Framingham is a former factory town and historical hub for immigrants. First, it was the English (who settled on Nipmuc land), then the Irish, Italians and Eastern Europeans, migrants from Puerto Rico, and today it is home to many newcomers from Brazil, Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Every year when I taught U.S. history, I attempted to present a story of migration that began with the Indigenous people and then eventually waves outsiders in different periods that continued to the present day. The overarching question that I wanted my students to answer was, has the United States been a nation of freedom for migrants/immigrants (and, if so, for whom and when)?

 
Above: (Left) My great grandfather (with hat; as a child standing behind his tenement in Holyoke, Mass.), whose family immigrated from Québec in Canada and (Right) my great grandmother (on right, in an family portrait taken in Chicopee, Mass.), whose family immigrated from Galicia in Poland.

I also approach this topic as a descendant of immigrants. My ancestors came to Massachusetts from Québec (and before that from France) and Poland. Whether it was taking trains south from Montréal to work in the paper mills of Holyoke or taking a boat and arriving at Ellis Island to later join relatives working in the factories of Ludlow and Springfield, my ancestors bought into the quest-for-freedom narrative. They benefited from the United States. They found stable work and housing (as they were barely surviving as farmers in Québec and Poland at the turn of the 20th century). However, they were also discriminated against because of their ethnicity and language once they came here (I have found numerous examples of family members who were listed in census records as child laborers; my relatives were often told in Canada and the U.S. to "speak White," which meant speak English). At the same time, especially for my French Canadian ancestors, they were settlers and colonizers who took land and killed Native people (which is an important part of the story that must also be acknowledged). As a White American, it is essential that I examine the positive and negative impacts of my family's journey here.

Based on my experiences as a teacher (and teacher educator) working in immigrant communities, and descendant of immigrants myself, I argue that teachers should consider three important ideas when teaching immigration in their social studies classrooms.

1. Migration/Immigration Should Be Taught Across the U.S. History Curriculum

While immigration occurred throughout much of American history, the topic is often studied by students only during units on antebellum and postbellem industrialism (and this is reinforced by state standards). While those periods were certainly important (and when many White Americans, as well as some Asian and Latinas/os trace their family's first journeys here), it is only one of the major waves of immigration. By only studying immigration in those periods, it neglects a longer historical arc of immigration.

Above: Migrants/immigrants not from the turn of the 20th century; (above) a painting of the Mayflower, which brought English immigrants, and (below) a plane bringing maids from Puerto Rico to New York.

It is essential that teachers portray the people who came as the result of English (Spanish, French, Dutch, etc.) colonization as immigrants. Otherwise, students may consider these groups as the original people here (erasing the millenniums of Native history before them). It is also important to incorporate the history of forced migrants from Africa into the larger narrative of immigration and make clear ways that enslaved peoples' experiences contrasted to those of immigrants (as the two are rarely presented this way, it may even lead some to see their experiences as tantamount, as we have seen written in some textbooks or described in politicians' speeches). It also prevents students from seeing that forced migrants' and immigrants' experiences were related. While plantation owners forced enslaved people (and later exploited their ancestors through sharecropping) to produce raw materials in the South, factory owners exploited immigrants in the factories that made finished products from those same materials.

2. Migration/Immigration is Not Only in the Past

While immigration is often taught as a historical topic, it is less likely to be taught as a current day political, economic, or geographic one. However, immigration has a strong impact on our current and future society. The nation relies on immigration economically and socially. Immigrants have influenced American culture (including our music, art, and sciences) and how we understand our political system. For many Americans, our identities are often closely related to our ancestors' origins. Unlike other nations were the vast majority of people share the same ethnicity, our cultural diversity is at the heart of who we are as a nation. Yet, teaching immigration as an event of the past may leave students with a sense that historical immigration is in no way connected to the people who come today and the people who will come in the future.

Above: A picture of the Rally for Immigrants, Washington, D.C. in 2013.

It is important for teachers to make regular connections between past and present immigration and immigrant groups. First, it helps students see that immigrants faced some similar experiences, yet it can also help them see how not all eras of immigration were the same. They will be able to see that certain immigrant groups may have had more or less political and social power depending on their group and the period (for instance, English settlers in colonial New England had a very different experience (were able to take Native land and establish their own governments and communities) than Latina/o immigrants today (who are dramatically underrepresented in the local or national governments). Second, it may allow some students to develop a sense of empathy or solidarity with present immigrant groups based on their families' or ancestors' immigrant experiences. My first teaching job was at a Catholic high school in Boston, where a large percentage of students were of Irish descent. There was clearly a significant amount of Irish pride within the student body and I was often able to engage the students in immigration studies by having them compare and contrast the Irish immigrant experience with the experiences of other immigrant groups. Within this, it is also important to continually bring in the role of race, class, and gender in the immigrant experience, by helping students see that immigrants often face intersecting oppression depending on who they are and where they came from.

This would also be an important place for teachers to discuss the differences between migrants and immigrants. While migration is a broad term that describes any group that moves from one place to another (it can include the ancestors of present day Native people, people who were forced to come to the United States through the slave trade, or Central American refugees fleeing crime or violence in their homeland), immigration implies migration withe specific intent on settling in a new place. Immigration often implies voluntary and with the expectation that is will most likely be permanent.

3. Make Migration/Immigration Personal for Students

People researching their own genealogy is possibly more popular than ever. With the digitizing of government records, it is now easier than ever to trace your family's records (See U.S. Census records, Ellis Island passenger records, slavery records, Freedman Bureau records, Japanese American WWII relocation and incarceration records, ancestry.com, and Mormon Church ancestry records). Since many of these records are free, it is easier now to have students investigate their family's histories in school. Moreover, students can benefit from assignments that have them interview family members about their family histories and their relatives experiences during certain historical events. For most Americans, genealogy research will expose immigrant or migrant histories; it can help them learn when and how their relatives came here from Asia or Europe, or trace their migration from Black communities in the South to the North and their ancestors slave or freedom status.


Teachers should consider engaging their students in critical family histories, which research their immigration stories, but also their ancestors forced migration (through slavery and Indian reservation and board school records) or involvement in colonization. This is the best way to help students realize their personal and family connections to the immigrant experience and the role that discrimination or privilege may have played into it. Christine Sleeter has described critical family histories as an attempt to situate your individual family stories within a wider analysis of social power relationships and culture.

My hope is that if we better have students examine a much more complex story of immigration, then as citizens, they will be better informed around the immigration-related issues that arise. It is difficult to understand the present, without understanding the past. This is especially true when it related to the topic of immigration.