The Borders of Immigration History: Citizenship and Politics from the Local to the Global

AHA Session 67
Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Boylston Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Geraldo L. Cadava, Northwestern University
George J. Sanchez, University of Southern California

Session Abstract

It is taken as a given that the central subject of immigration history—the immigrant—is a person who crosses national borders.  Yet borders, as a new wave of scholarship emphasizes, are not natural formations that map easily onto national territory.  Rather, they are defined by the social construction of the rights of citizenship and noncitizenship as much as by territorial boundaries.

This panel applies this insight to immigration history, pushing beyond the usual frameworks.  Is the United States a nation of immigrants, eager to assimilate?  Or is it a nation of nativists, seeking to exclude immigrants?  A nativist critique, emphasizing racial exclusion, has largely supplanted the mythology of American assimilation, yet the historical debate remains focused on which ideological commitments stand at the center of American immigration history.  This panel challenges this historiography by situating migration and citizenship rights—features of ostensibly “national” boundaries, and usually considered in national terms—in their specific historical contexts.  Immigration law is not imposed in a smooth top-down process.  Nor is it the result solely of grassroots movements.  Borders, immigration, and citizenship rights are the result of social struggles.  Innovative histories have demonstrated how immigration policy has produced racial and political subjects, yet that policy was not simply national: it often emerged from local struggles, or was implemented at the local level.  American immigration policy, furthermore, was part of a larger, global history, as multiple nations tried to control and monitor the movement of peoples.  How do different scales of social and political experience, from the local to the global, reshape the politics of immigration, inclusion, and exclusion? 

To address this question, the panelists focus on three key moments and locations.  Hidetaka Hirota analyzes nativism in Massachusetts and New York during Reconstruction, revealing a forgotten history of local immigration control that proceeded to transform the immigration policies of the nation.  Aaron Cavin explores the connections between immigration and urban policies in the decades after World War II in suburban Silicon Valley, uncovering new constructions of race and citizenship.  Shelley Lee investigates the rise of Koreatown in Los Angeles during the 1970s and 1980s period of postindustrial transformation, examining the relationships between trans-Pacific migration, capital flows, and civic identity.  Geraldo Cadava, a scholar of the southwestern borderlands, chairs the panel, and George Sanchez, an expert on American immigration and ethnic history, provides the comment. 

This panel will showcase innovative historical research, advancing understanding of the history of immigration and citizenship.  By examining immigration politics across time and space, this panel aims to converse with a variety of historians on issues that are salient for the field as a whole, furthering theoretical understanding of America in the world, the relationship between borders and national histories, struggles for citizenship and belonging, and the meanings of sovereignty and territoriality.  The papers welcome discussion on the conference theme, “Society and the Sacred,” by, for example, exploring the mythology of American immigrant inclusion, considering the idea of the sacred in rights discourse, or by discussing the role of religion in immigration politics.

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