Professor Erika Lee woke up the day after the presidential election with a brainstorm. With so much heated debate about immigration, the University of Minnesota historian decided a little historical perspective was desperately needed.
So she teamed up with experts across the country to launch a new website, #ImmigrationSyllabus, that offers a crash course in how immigration bans have played out in the past — often to the nation’s lasting regret.
The goal, says Lee, is not to take sides in the political debate, but to let the facts do the talking.
“The issue of immigration is so divisive and many of the facts get lost,” said Lee, director of the U’s Immigration History Research Center. “As historians we know what the full impact was.”
Since 1882 — when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act — presidents and politicians have gone through cycles of banning or restricting various ethnic groups and nationalities, only to apologize years (or decades) later for the harm inflicted, Lee said. In 2012, for example, Congress formally expressed regret for the 19th-century law restricting Chinese immigration — nearly 70 years after it was repealed.
“When we close the gates, we look back on those periods with shame,” she said. “And I do feel that we are on the verge of repeating some of those past mistakes.”
The website made its debut on Jan. 26, which turned out to be especially timely.
The next day, President Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning refugees and visitors from seven Muslim countries — a move that triggered nationwide protests.
Since then, the new website has drawn more than 13,000 visitors from across the world, much to Lee’s delight.
College class, no lectures
To create the site, Lee said she reached out to some of the brightest minds in her field; they spent the next two months wrestling with how to distill centuries of history into a format that would appeal to the public, as well as fellow educators.
But Lee insists that the immigration site, which was sponsored jointly by the U and the national Immigration and Ethnic History Society, takes a more measured approach. “It’s really meant to be an educational resource and a teaching tool,” she said.
The website is designed to mimic a 15-week college course, minus the lectures. The introduction notes how the presidential campaign reflected a kind of hostility toward foreigners that never fully went away. “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,” it says.
The site contains extensive reading lists that chronicle the ebb and flow of anti-immigrant fervor, which, over time, has targeted Asians, Irish Catholics, Jews, Mexicans, Middle Easterners and other nationalities.
In retrospect, Lee says, history has judged those efforts harshly; as a betrayal of American values. “This is not just a left-wing opinion,” she said. “This is historical fact.”
Is it fair? Views differ
Some, though, couldn’t help seeing a liberal bent in the project. Mitch Pearlstein, founder of the conservative Center of the American Experiment, said it was evident in the photo on the website’s home page, which shows protesters carrying a “Justice for All” banner. “[If] they are, in fact, determined to be intellectually fair to a wide range of perspectives, they shouldn’t have picked opening art work featuring clenched fists on parade,” he argued.
Jon Shields, a California political scientist who co-authored a book on liberal bias on campuses, noted that the website’s reading list contains “some very good stuff.” But, he added, “it seems like it neglects to mention thoughtful center and center-right work by important scholars.”
Lee brushes off any suggestion of bias. “I’m sure there will be people on both sides that will find fault with what we put in and what we left out,” she said. “We’re really raising questions for discussion,” she added. “We hope and we expect that many people will come to their own conclusions.”
At this point, many of the suggested readings are not freely available online because of copyright issues, Lee said. But U librarians are working on that, she said, in hopes of opening up access in the future.
In the meantime, Lee said that she hopes a site like this will help elevate the public debate. “We really just want to contribute to a better informed citizenry,” she said. “We just feel there’s so much more to the story, to the debate, than what’s going on.”