UMD’s Center for the History of the New America takes a new look at a subject that has shaped America: immigration.

The United States is a nation of immigrants.  Since the earliest settlement of mainland North America and the founding of the Republic, people from all over the globe--from every class, ethnic and religious backgrounds—have populated this country.

The flow has not stopped. People from all over the globe continue to arrive by the thousands, in hopes of finding work and a better life. However, of late the sources of those new arrivals have changed, and the Center for the History of the New America at the UMD’s College of Arts & Humanities—as part of their charge to study migration from a global perspective--plan to explore this new face of America, a face already visible on campus .
“When you look at this University [of Maryland] you see the face of the world,” said Provost Anne Wylie at the center’s opening ceremony.
Professor Ira Berlin alongside Professor Julie Greene, from the department of history, are the co-directors of the center. Although with a Board of Directors draw from across campus, they are bringing together scholars from all over the world to study and teach about immigration. In collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute, the National Archives, and many other centers for historical study, the center will make the University of Maryland the hub for understanding the long history of the United States as an immigrant nation.

Professor Greene discusses the future plans of the center and its relevance:

Q: Why this center and why now?

Professor Greene: The Center for the History of the New America takes its inspiration from the fact that the U.S. has become an immigrant society once again—meaning that immigrants, first and second generation, are playing a central role in shaping this country and its identity.  The mission of the center is to bring knowledge and dialogue from history and other disciplines to bear on how we understand immigration. The center also seeks to frame our understanding in a global way, with much attention to immigrants’ roots: where are they coming from, why are they coming, and how global migrations are shaping U.S. immigration history.
Q: How do you see the immigration issue playing out in the next elections?

Professor Greene: Immigration is one of the most important issues this country is facing. Immigration laws have evolved as a result of many different circumstances and I think the laws that currently exist don’t put us in a very good position to deal with the issue in a productive way.  
The real debate begins with how we can and should change the laws.  It is a contentious debate.  And it is not just between Democrats and Republicans; to some degree it cuts across partisan lines. The question is how we should create laws that will humanely shape how many people come to this country and how to deal with those already here.  And how we should balance the fact that this country relies on immigrants for economic reasons. Speaking from a scholar’s point of view, what I see is that hostility towards immigrants tends to intensify during bad economic times, when people are feeling anxious or worried about their present circumstances or their future. 

Q: What are some of the misconceptions?

Professor Greene: There are so many misconceptions it’s hard to know where to start. Often immigrants become easy scapegoats to blame problems on—so people will say they are responsible for the absence of jobs, or they cause crime or traffic in drugs. Often immigrants are treated as somehow they are less human than other people in this country. To me, one of the most important problems is that we often pay too little attention to the global policies of the United States that are pushing people to immigrate to the United States. Our economic relationship with Mexico, for example, has generated unemployment in that country that has intensified immigration to this country.
Q: Will the center address any big issues, such as the one you mention in your article about detention centers in the U.S. where illegal immigrants are held and sometimes abused?

Professor Greene: It will.  I believe in a lot of ways that immigrants are caught in the middle of all these debates. They are drawn to this country by employers who desire their labor but they often face inhumane treatment, poor protection of their rights, low pay—and then they face abusive treatment at the detention centers whose policies are problematic.
Q: How will this center be different than others around the country?
Professor Greene: We believe our center has a distinctive role to play because it is focused on the global history of immigration and because it is interdisciplinary. Our center will be broad in its aims, bringing together scholars, graduate students, and community representatives.  We want to create archives and bring together researchers, students, and teachers while doing networking with local organizations. We want ultimately to help enrich the public debate and generate a more open and informed dialogue.
Q: Professor Berlin explained that he does not see the role of the center as a think tank but more as an educational entity; is that the understanding?

Professor Greene: Absolutely. There are some courses being taught presently but we are planning to create an immigration studies minor and a certificate.  As we study to see where the gaps are, and what topics needed, we will offer courses accordingly.
Q: What are some upcoming projects for the center?

Professor Greene:  We are planning two conferences for 2012. The first one is called “Born in the USA: The Politics of Birthright Citizenship in Historical Perspective.” It will take place in late March of 2012 and will include an exciting group of historians, sociologists, and legal scholars, including Professor Eric Foner of Columbia University as a keynote speaker. The second will focus on “Immigrants and Entrepreneurship,” and will focus on immigrants’ key role as economic and social innovators across history.
We have also been supporting the exciting work of Professor Judith Friedenberg, an anthropologist here at the University of Maryland, who is collaborating with the Smithsonian to train students to conduct oral history interviews with some of the many immigrants who live around us here in Prince Georges County. This project brings together many of the elements that animate the center: an interest in innovative pedagogy, public outreach, informed dialogue, and thus new ways of illuminating the history of immigration.