Told  /  Etymology

Great Migration Debates: Keywords in Historical Perspective

The use of the word "immigrant" in contemporary debates often reflects a lack of understanding of U.S. immigration history.
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When confronting recent debates, historians of migration often muse over similarities between past and present. Certainly there are so many continuities in the positive and negative qualities attributed to foreigners a century ago and today that one wonders whether any new data could ever possibly resolve such long-standing disagreements.

Here, however, I want to focus not on the persisting stereotypes of foreigners but on striking discontinuities among those persons—almost all of them natives and citizens—who debate public policy. Today’s debates feature two key phrases—“illegal immigrants” and “nation of immigrants”—that especially divide the debaters. Neither phrase figured in the passionate debates of the past. Today, whether they worry over illegal immigrants or celebrate a nation of immigrants, North Americans agree they are debating about “immigrants.” That consensus is so fundamental that few realize how new such terminology is. By acknowledging the newness of “immigration” and “immigrants” as keywords we can see what policy debates reveal about the debaters. Historical analysis provides a mirror into which North Americans can peer in order to better understand themselves and their own attitudes toward foreigners.

The study of language and meaning has been dominated recently by post-modern philosophers. Now the availability of searchable, digitized, online collections of texts opens up new methodological options. Using digitized sources, scholars can more easily identify and more effectively contextualize the invention, use and spatial or temporal diffusion of key words and phrases through systematic analysis of vast collections of texts.

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