Historians discuss immigration reform on Capitol Hill

Historians in the News
tags: historians, immigration reform, AHA Today, Capitol Hill

Yesterday, a short distance from the AHA offices, supporters of immigration reform marched on the National Mall, as a bipartisan group of eight senators continue deliberations that have been alternately described as “stuck,” “close,” “virtually complete,” or “about to get serious.” The senators will likely reveal their plan for comprehensive immigration reform, if there is one, today.

In response to the flurry of activity on this previously languishing issue, the National History Center, a project of the American Historical Association, sponsored a congressional briefing in the Rayburn House Office Building last Friday. These briefings offer congressional staff and members a historical perspective on issues of current interest. The historians who present at these briefings avoid making recommendations to Congress, but discuss previous paths taken and their outcomes.

Tyler Anbinder, professor of history at George Washington University, started the session by covering the nation’s experience with immigrants leading up to the Civil War. One of the most compelling of his points, from the perspective of today’s debates, was how political parties struggled with immigrants’ political power, and nativist fears of that power. Anbinder also noted how Irish immigrants in antebellum America, contrary to popular belief, had substantial savings. Like immigrants from many other periods, they lived in undesirable neighborhoods and wore tattered clothes in order to boost their savings accounts. Few of them were actually destitute or dependent on handouts. Anbinder’s 2012 article for the Journal of American History provides more on this topic....

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