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Op-Ed: What does it mean to be American? Ask an immigrant

By July 21, 2021September 16th, 2023No Comments
Erika Lee

Erika Lee

Erika Lee wrote an opinion piece published in the Los Angeles Times on July 4, titled: “What does it mean to be American? Ask an immigrant.”

In the essay, Lee, Regents Professor of History and Asian American Studies, traced American xenophobism — fear and hatred of foreigners — from the mid-19th century through 1916, then jumping a century, to Donald Trump’s election as U.S. President in 2016 and its follow-up.

Xenophobia under Trump was represented by policy — such as the attempt to ban Muslims from entering the United States — while Trump blamed the spread of COVID-19 on the Chinese government leading to attacks on Asian Americans. All immigrants began to be treated as public health threats.

“The country became gripped by a second epidemic: one of fear, xenophobia and racism,” wrote Lee, who is also Director of the U of M’s Immigration History Research Center (IHRC).

Immigrant Stories project

Immigrant Stories on the Libraries' UMedia Website

Immigrant Stories on the Libraries’ UMedia website.

Addressing that epidemic, which continues its grip, will take facts — and also the immigrants’ stories, particularly as they themselves tell them. The Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota is collecting immigrant stories, more than 370 so far, that share the experiences, hopes, and dreams of new Americans. These stories are preserved and available to all on the Libraries’ UMedia website.

She sketches the experiences of three people, immigrants to the United States. We cannot function divided as we currently are, Lee wrote. “If we are to survive and thrive, we need to commit ourselves to building a future that is not about ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ but ‘we.’”

Read more in the L.A. Times

Read the op/ed; watch the video

Read Erika Lee’s op-ed in the LA Times or watch a video interview with her. Her latest book is America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States.” The Immigration History Research Center is supported by the Libraries’ Immigration History Research Center Archives.

—Allison Campbell-Jensen


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