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Erika Lee speaks about immigrant rights and racial history in honor of MLK day

XIAO XUAN YANG Professor Erika Lee, Director of the Immigrant History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, came to Grinnell this past Wednesday to talk about the history of immigrant rights.
Professor Erika Lee, Director of the Immigrant History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, came to Grinnell this past Wednesday to talk about the history of immigrant rights. Photo by Xiao Xuan Yang.


Several executive orders regarding U.S. immigration policy have been signed by President Donald Trump since he took office last Friday. The orders allow for the building of Trump’s infamous wall along the border to Mexico, adding lock-ups for detaining immigrants without documentation, increasing funding for more border agents and stripping federal funding to sanctuary cities.

Amidst this turmoil, several Grinnellians gathered in JRC 101 on Wednesday night in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day to hear Professor Erika Lee discuss the history of immigrant rights in America in a talk called “Immigrant Rights and African American Freedom Struggles.” Lee, who serves as Director of the Immigration History Research Center and the Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History at the University of Minnesota, began by addressing Trump’s recent executive orders.

“Today was a big day,” she said. “Our new president signed two executive orders in relation to immigration This is our new reality and it is much uglier and much more difficult than those of us who study immigration could even imagine, even knowing that these were central platforms.”

Lee went on to outline the history of immigrant rights in the U.S. While she focused primarily on the history of Asian Americans, Lee also connected immigrant rights to African American freedom struggles.

“Telling this history is so important, because we tend to think of these histories, African American history, Asian American history, as two distinct subjects with different histories, but it is very clear when we look at the historical record that the fates of these two groups have often been inextricably connected to each other,” she said.

“America’s treatment of certain immigrant groups has often risen and fallen along with the destinies of African Americans,” explained Lee. “This is because xenophobia, fear of the foreigners, fear of strangers and exclusion of non-citizens in the U.S. has mirrored the ongoing stigmatization and subordination of other minorities, including African Americans, the working poor, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, women, religious minorities and lesbian, gay and transgender individuals.”

As Lee outlined the history of Asian American registries, internment camps and lynchings, she urged the audience to understand the necessity of intersectionality in activism, especially during a time when America’s violent history threatens to repeat itself.

“One attack on one group often was related to attacks on many,” Lee said. “Today, anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim xenophobia has expanded along with the mass incarceration of black people, resistance to Black Lives Matter movements and a rollback of voting rights protections that have disproportionately affected minority voters.”

Many students were impressed with Lee and felt that talks such as hers are especially valuable in their ability to get Grinnellians talking.

“I think that a lot of people at Grinnell probably know about what is going on, but aren’t necessarily talking about it,” said Lily Ge ’17. “I’m guilty of this too. I’ll read a breaking news alert or something about the executive acts [Lee] was talking about and I’ll process it and internalize it myself and maybe chat about it with a friend, but I’m not necessarily having a campus … discussion, open discussion about it. With talks like these I think it’s inciting conversation and discussion that we may not be getting otherwise.”

Other students felt that though the talk was valuable, it failed to fully address the multiplicity and complexity of immigration laws in the U.S.

“It seems kind of jarring to see the lack of inclusion of a lot of the complexities that were very symptomatic of early 20th century relations,” said Jesus Villalobos ’17. “There’s a lot of complicated aspects that I don’t think we’re necessarily touched upon and I was spoiled by one of my professors here, because we did get into that complexity.”

Lee wrapped up her visit to campus by partaking in a question and answer session with students, urging them to interrogate intersectionality and history as we move forward as a nation.

“These politics [of intersectionality] have a long history, for injustice has never been one dimensional but multidimensional,” she said.

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