Seminars help situate current immigration controversy in historical context

In light of the current political issues regarding immigration, two events were held at Washington State University Vancouver to address the situation.

On Feb. 9, the Human Development club hosted a talk by Quinn Andrus. Andrus is a community relations officer for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Portland. Her talk was titled “The History of Immigration Law in the U.S.” and was primarily focused on the evolution of legislation related to immigration. Andrus emphasized that the USCIS is “emphatically not an enforcement agency … we grant benefits … we are judicators.”

Andrus began by reading former president Barrack Obama’s welcome address delivered by the agency at every naturalization ceremony. In the address, Obama said that immigrants are a part of what makes the U.S. a great nation and encourages them to be “active and engaged participants in our democracy.”

Andrus then proceeded by outlining five eras of immigration legislation. Currently, said Andrus, the United States is in the “National Security Era” that began with the attacks on Sept. 11. This era is marked by the US government’s attempt to balance security with humanitarian concerns, Andrus said.

She shared a number of images from the New York Times, primarily reflecting the immigration process on Ellis Island. The island served as an immigration station from 1892 to 1954.

A recurring theme in the presentation was that immigration has always been part of the national conversation.

Exactly a week later, last Thursday, history professor Laurie Mercier also held a talk in which she sought to place current events in their historical context. The title of her presentation was “Becoming American: Immigration and Racial Inequality in the U.S.” The event was part of the “Encounter Research at the Library” series and was sponsored by the library in conjunction with the Common Reading program and Black History month.

Similar to Andrus, Mercier outlined five eras of immigration. Mercier argued that the current events unfolding around the issue of immigration have a precedent in the history of the U.S.

Mercier focused on the attitudes surrounding immigration controversies in the past. For example, the influx of Irish immigrants in the early 19th century was considered a threat to national security, Mercier said. Eventually Irish immigrants pushed black laborers out of American ports and were able to cement their status in society.

Mercier also presented a number of caricatures reflecting the nation’s sentiment when in came to immigration. Among them was Thomas Nast’s Chinese wall caricature referencing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The drawing depicts European-dressed immigrants entering the United States by climbing over a wall and “throwing down the ladder by which they rose” behind them in order to prevent Chinese immigrants from entering the country.

For more information on Andrus’ talk, contact Suzanne Smith at smithsu@wsu.edu. For more information on Mercier’s talk, contact Sam Lohmann at 360-546-9682 or sam.lohmann@wsu.edu.

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