The 2016 presidential election brought a great deal of attention to immigration and immigrants in American society. Much of this debate perpetuated harmful stereotypes, dangerously stoked fears about outsiders, and echoed a nativist rhetoric that many believed had disappeared from public discourse. The debate also ignored how current discussions are deeply rooted in century-long conversations about who is allowed into the country and what it means to be an American. Indeed, anti-immigrant rhetoric and immigrant surveillance, detention, and deportation have been a defining feature of American politics and state and federal policy since the 19th century.
This syllabus seeks to provide historical context to current debates over immigration reform, integration, and citizenship. Many Americans have a romanticized idea of the nation’s immigrant past. In fact, America’s immigration history is more contested, more nuanced, and more complicated than many assume. Then, like now, many politicians, public commentators, critics, and media organizations have greatly influenced Americans’ understanding of immigration and the role that immigrants play in U.S. society.
The syllabus follows a chronological overview of U.S. immigration history, but it also includes thematic weeks that cover salient issues in political discourse today such as xenophobia, deportation policy, and border policing. As there are many ways of teaching immigration history, the topics included here are not intended to be exhaustive. Rather, we have selected readings that directly offer historical context for understanding contemporary immigration politics and have proven useful in our teaching. We also include a short list of primary sources and multimedia to assist in teaching and learning. When available, we link to readings, documents, and teaching resources available online.