Essential topics, readings, and multimedia that provide historical context to current debates over immigration reform, integration, and citizenship

Created by immigration historians affiliated with the

Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota and the Immigration and Ethnic History Society

January 26, 2017


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.


We hope that this syllabus will help educators, activists, and citizens in their teaching, advocacy, and public discussions about immigration in the United States historically and today. We also hope that it will assist policymakers who seek to avoid the mistakes of the past.



PDF version of #ImmigrationSyllabus

Word version of #ImmigrationSyllabus


A Note on Accessing Readings

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Panel 1

Weeks 1-2


Why study immigration?

What does the study of immigration reveal about U.S. history and which stories we tell about ourselves as a people?




Settlers, Servants, and Slaves in British, French, and Spanish Colonial America

How does inequality, the freedom to move,  and access to citizenship have its roots in the colonial period?



Primary Sources



Panel 2

Weeks 3-6

Week 3

Global Migrations, 1830-1930

How did dramatic political, economic, and social changes during the 19th century transform and encourage migration to and within the United States? What were the consequences of U.S. military, territorial, and economic expansion for indigenous peoples, slaves, immigrants, colonized peoples, and native-born and naturalized Americans?



Primary Sources

  • Irish Immigrant Letters Home, Historical Society of Pennsylvania
  • Walter D. Kamphoefner, Wolfgang Johannes Helbich, and Ulrike Sommer, News From the Land of Freedom: German Immigrants Write Home (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991)
  • Ellis Island Photographs, New York Public Library






Historical Origins of Contemporary Nativism and Xenophobia

Why has immigration been a topic of perennial debate in the U.S.? How has the fear of foreigners and the desire to define and protect an “American” identity evolved over time?



Primary Sources




Mass Migration and the Rise of Federal Immigration Law

How did policy makers increasingly use race, class, political ideology, health and ability, gender, and sexuality to favor the entry of particular groups and restrict others? How did immigrants and their American-born children persevere during an age of restriction?



Primary Sources






The Closed Gate (1924-1965)? Migration, Immigration, and Citizenship

Who settled in the United States during the ‘era of exclusion’? How did the ‘era of exclusion’ change Americans’ ideas about belonging, citizenship, and labor?



Primary Sources



  • 14: Dred Scott, Wong Kim Ark, and Vanessa Lopez,” Graham Street Productions (documentary film)
  • “A Class Apart,” PBS (documentary film)
  • “Chicano!” (documentary film)
  • “Dollar a Day, Ten Cents a Dance” (documentary film)
  • “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” episode 3 (documentary film)
  • “The Jazz Singer” (film)
  • “The New Latinos,” Episode 4, The Latino Americans (documentary film)
Panel 3

Weeks 7-8


World War II and the Cold War:  The Geopolitics of Immigration Reforms

How did international conflicts lead the United States to diminish the rights of individuals categorized as “enemy aliens”? How did foreign relations influence the reform of immigration and naturalization laws for groups who had faced near exclusion from the U.S. and had been denied access to citizenship?



Primary Sources



  • “A Family Gathering” (documentary film)
  • “America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference” (documentary film)
  • “Carlos Eire: A Cuban-American Searches For Roots” (podcast)
  • Densho: The Japanese Experience during WWII (multimedia website)
  • “How to Spot a Jap” (digitized book)
  • “War and Peace,” Episode 3,  The Latino Americans (documentary film)
  • “The Legacy of Heart Mountain” (documentary film)
  • “The Zoot Suit Riots” (documentary film)



Family, Gender, and Sexuality

How does immigration impact gender and family relations?

How has immigration policy, gender inequality, and discrimination against LGBT immigrants affected the freedom to move and the immigrant experience?



Primary Sources



Panel 4

Weeks 9-11


The 1965 Hart-Celler Act and the Remaking of Immigrant America

Which groups of immigrants did the new law privilege, and what contradictions did the new law produce? What was so new about the “new” immigration following the 1965 Hart-Celler Act?  



Primary Sources





Refugee and Asylum Policy

How are refugees and asylees different from immigrants? Why does the United States prioritize their admission? How are they selected? How is U.S. refugee resettlement policy shaped by U.S. international relations?



Primary Sources





How Globalization Produces Migration: Immigration Law, Economic Policy, and Global Markets in Skilled and Unskilled Workers

How do immigration restrictions serve corporate interests? How do immigration laws benefit “skilled” workers and disadvantage “unskilled” workers?



Primary Sources

Panel 5

Weeks 12-15


Undocumented Immigrants / Immigrant Rights

How did immigrants become “illegal?” What does it feel like to live in the shadows? How have immigrants and their allies fought for rights, protection, and belonging?


Primary Sources






Border Walls & Border Policing

Why do nation-states build walls and police borders? What impact do walls and border policing have on individuals, families, and communities? How do they shape our views of immigrants and our neighbors to the north and south? Why are borders more permeable for some people — and goods — than for others?  



Primary Sources






Post-9/11 America

In the wake of the terrorist attacks and the U.S.-led War on Terror, how did concerns for national security affect immigration policy? How did the terrorist attacks – and the U.S. response – influence  American attitudes towards immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers? How have the long-standing fears of invasion by populations considered “unassimilable”  justified the continued expansion of border controls in the name of national security?


Primary Sources






Deportation Nation

Who has been targeted for deportation throughout United States history, and why? How has expulsion shaped who is considered to be an insider and outsider, and who is considered to be deserving and undeserving? How does the history of deportation challenge the United States’ reputation as “a nation of immigrants”?



Primary Sources