It is a cliché that America is a land of immigrants. But there is truth behind this cliché. From the migrating hunters who crossed the Bering Strait thousands of years ago to the Mayflower’s English passengers of 1620 to the Ukrainian, Mexican, and Vietnamese immigrants of today, America’s people have been travelers to a new land and a new life. No matter how many generations ago, each of our families began with a voyage to that new land. This issue of HISTORY NOW, which is devoted to narrating this ongoing story of immigration, uses three groups whose arrivals span the centuries from colonial times to the present as the lens through which to view the immigrant experience. In addition to these essays on African American, Eastern European, and Puerto Rican immigration, we have included an essay that explores how immigrants engage the struggle between acculturation and the preservation of their ethnic or religious identities through the literature they produce. Finally, we have devoted our interactive feature to several landmark legal cases that address the critical question: who can claim American citizenship and who, at times in our history, has been denied that opportunity.
Why is the study of immigration such an important element of our curriculum on every level of education? In part, because the students in many of our classrooms mirror the diversity of American society that these essays highlight. In the halls of my own college, students speak to one another in their native Russian, Spanish, Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew; in my classes, they bring to the study of American history a rich array of analogies to and revealing differences from lives begun in distant countries. For these students, the study of immigration is reassuring, reminding them that others have gone through the same experiences, both difficult and exhilarating, of becoming American. But even students whose families arrived many generations or centuries ago benefit from a close examination of our diverse origins. The study of immigration provides these students with an opportunity to reconnect with their own past and to understand the process that led to their becoming “native Americans.” And for all our students, the study of immigration reminds them that who and what we are as a nation is the sum total of our multiple traditions, customs, beliefs, and talents, that e pluribus unum means the creation of a new, collective national identity out of many diverse identities.
As always, we look forward to hearing from you at our “Digital Drop Box,” where you can submit questions, comments, and stories from your classroom.
Carol Berkin is Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Conservative, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence.