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Writing American Immigration History (June 2019): Home

by Sara S. Goek


This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the June 2019 of Choice (volume 56 | issue 10).


Immigration is a defining facet of American history: except for Indigenous peoples, all of us arrived in the centuries since Columbus “discovered” the New World. As a legal issue immigration emerged with the nation itself. Under the 1790 Nationality Act only “free white persons” could claim citizenship, and it defined a category of “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” The former designation highlights the existence of the enslaved population—neither free, nor white, nor present by choice.

From these beginnings, legal and racial ideas about who can belong to the nation have continued to animate debates. This essay focuses on the era of mass immigration from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. At the turn of the twentieth century, nativism and prejudice ushered in an era of federal restrictions. From that point forward the question has always been how, not whether, the government should control immigration.

A vast literature exists on this history. This essay gives an overview of key texts in the field, focusing on trends in historiography. It is organized into three thematic perspectives. The first section examines how historians have conceptualized immigration overall, beginning with Oscar Handlin’s influential work in the 1940s and 1950s through to contemporary trends in scholarship. The second section looks at American attempts to control immigration in law, policy, and ideologies since the mid-nineteenth century, as well as the sites of control, from seaports on the East Coast to the contemporary southern borderlands. The final section focuses on the immigrants themselves. While space does not allow for a comprehensive assessment of the histories of all immigrant groups, the texts selected cover an ethnic, racial, geographic, and temporal spectrum. They are united in a desire to make sense of the lived experience of immigration. As historians live within their own eras, these texts highlight how writing of American immigration history has evolved in line with wider trends in scholarship and in society writ large.

By Sara S. Goek

Sara S. Goek holds a PhD in history and digital arts and humanities from University College Cork. She is Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and Program Manager at the Association of College & Research Libraries.