Understanding culture and family history: Immigration

How did your family come to this country? How is it the same or different for immigrants today?

Different hands on a map

When researching family history, many genealogists considering tracing their family back to when they came from another country to be a milestone. Do you know how your family came to the United States? Are parts of your family Native American and have been here an extremely long time?

Understanding your own family history and immigration story can help put the current discussion about immigration in context. This can be an opportunity to learn about history and discuss current policies and those of the past. How is the experience of your ancestors the same or different than immigration today? When you are discussing this subject, try to ignore the memes and potentially out-of-context snippets, and examine the issue at a deeper.

Why do you think your family came to the United States? Was it economic opportunity? Religious freedom? Were they leaving because of a war? If you have family stories discussing this, it can be a great part of your family history. If not, looking for clues in world history might be helpful. For example, over 1.5 million Irish people came to the United States during the Great Famine, also known as the Irish Potato Famine. Another example is of Finnish people coming to Michigan in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There was a combination of economic opportunity to work in the mines of the Upper Peninsula, and Sweden and Russia warring over what is now Finland.

How did the arrival of your ancestors to what is now the United States happen? Did they just “walk off the boat” or did they have to go through a screening process?

The U.S. had open borders for nearly 100 years of its history until the Page Act of 1875, which excluded Chinese women from entering the U.S.. This was followed by laws banning Chinese men and other Asians. If your ancestors came to the U.S. before 1875, there were very little screening processes. How do you think open borders might have affected the safety of the country? Why do you think Congress waited so long to end open borders?

The Immigration Act of 1882 was the first comprehensive immigration law. It was designed to keep people out of the country who might be dangerous or would be unable to support themselves financially. How this was done was left up to the state or city where the immigration occurred. What do you think of this? Should local control determine who should enter the United States, or is this a national issue?

The Immigration Act of 1891 put the federal government in charge of processing immigrants. The most famous place where this happened was Ellis Island, which opened in 1892. The average processing time through Ellis Island was just a few hours. At first, no papers were required, and folks were checked for diseases and asked some questions. What do you think is an appropriate inspection for someone entering the U.S.? What questions would you ask someone? What background checks should be required? In 1917, literacy tests were added. Do you think this is a good idea? Why or why not?

From 1921 to 1965, the United States had a series of different systems that restricted how many could enter the U.S. based on their country of origin. Why might that be a good or bad idea?

In 1965, the system changed to favor immigration to relatives of current U.S. citizens, those with particular job skills and refugees seeking asylum from dangerous conditions in their own country.

Family-based immigration currently takes place between a few months to many years. Employment-based immigration can take one to four years. Refugees have an average wait time of over 700 days. What do you think is an appropriate wait time? How might this wait time affect both legal and illegal immigration?

For many of our immigrant ancestors, the process of coming to this country was relatively simple. It is much more complicated today. How do you think the change over time has affected our country? If you were recreating the system from scratch, what would you do?

Hopefully these questions get you reflecting on your own family history and how it relates to the immigration issues of today.

This article was inspired by and adapted from the 4-H Folkpatterns curriculum:

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program help to prepare youth as positive and engaged leaders and global citizens by providing educational experiences and resources for youth interested in developing knowledge and skills in these areas.

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, citizenship and service and global and cultural education programs, read our Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways MSU Extension and Michigan 4-H have positively impacted individuals and communities can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.


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