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Xenophobia in America: Xenophobia and distrust of immigrants was rife in turn of the century New York City, pictured here in 1890

Xenophobia in America: A Conversation with Dr. Erika Lee

January 2, 2020

Xenophobia in America: A Conversation with Dr. Erika Lee

Adam Strom interviews Dr. Erika Lee, author of the new book America for Americans, and explores the topics of immigration and xenophobia in America.


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Xenophobia in America: Exploring the Roots of Immigration and Historical Struggles

Professor Erika Lee is one of the leading historians of immigration and a prolific author. As I write, four of her books rest on my desk, each providing important insights into the history and evolving identity or identities of the United States. Her new book, America for Americans, should be required reading for people who care about immigration, migration, and newcomers today or teach U.S. history to students at any level. It is really that good.

I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Lee about the significance of her work for teachers.

Adam Strom, Director of Re-imagining Migration: Erika, I am really honored that you are taking the time to talk to us. Someday, I hope we can meet in person.

One of the reasons I love your new book is that it puts histories and stories in conversation that too often are thought about in isolation. So much of your previous writing explored the migration of Asians to the United States and, long history of Chinese Exclusion. I am wondering, what do you think you know after writing a book that spans begins in the Colonial period and goes us to protests against the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance border policy in June of 2018?

Erika Lee:

Thank you, Adam, for this opportunity to speak with you and for these great questions! You start with an important observation - historians have been writing about xenophobia for a long time. But they mostly focus on one particular group, anti-immigrant movement, or time period. I have stacks of books on the anti-Catholic movement, the anti-Chinese movement, Islamophobia, etc. But only a handful of books connect and compare these histories.  What soon became clear to me when writing America for Americans was how interconnected these histories are. Xenophobia - both in terms of ideology and policies - is very similar across groups, time, and place. For example, some of the same arguments that were first wielded against Irish Catholics in the 19th century - that there were too many of them, they were not fit to be citizens, they were racially inferior and that their faith was at odds with the US - are almost identical to the ones used against Muslims today. Xenophobia in America succeeds through repetition, allowing it to add to an already established xenophobic script and build on previously successful political movements and policies.

Xenophobia in America: Dr. Erika Lee tackles the subject in her new book pictured here.

The cover of Dr. Lee's new book.

Xenophobia in America: Understanding Two Sides of "A Nation of Immigrants"

Adam: I want to ask you something that I often ask teachers as a warm-up in a workshop. What do you want students to graduate high school knowing about im/migration? What would you want newcomers to know? What would you want their peers to know? 


I’d want high school graduates to fully understand both sides of the “nation of immigrants” and “nation of xenophobia” story that has defined the United States. The US does indeed have a tradition of welcoming generations of immigrants. But it also has a tradition of xenophobia; of fearing and hating them. I write about how my own family’s history mirrors both of these traditions in many of my books, including America for Americans. Learning only about the “nation of immigrants” version (one that often erases the violence of slavery, dispossession of indigenous peoples, as well as xenophobia) leaves students unprepared for understanding the complexity of the US in the past and present. 

It’s also imperative that all Americans gain a better understanding of the facts of immigration - why people leave their homes, who can apply for admission, how the immigration system works, who gets in and who does not, what rights immigrants have (and do not have) in the US, etc. Knowing the facts will help them fact check claims made about immigration by politicians and others. I turn to the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute for statistics and an overview of laws, both historic and contemporary. The American Immigration Council has a useful fact sheet on how the U.S. immigration system works, and the George W. Bush Institute and Defining American has many resources that debunk immigration myths. 

At the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) which I direct, we have just completed a free 140-page comprehensive "Teaching Immigration" curriculum for grades 8-Adult on why and how people immigrate to the US. Created with The Advocates for Human Rights, these lesson plans include fact sheets, maps, and in-class active learning worksheets.

Newcomers to the US know both sides of this story well, better than most Americans who were born in this country. I would encourage them to tell their stories widely and share their experiences. So much of what Americans hear about immigration is distorted by the media. It’s important for all of us to learn more about why people choose (or are forced) to leave their homes and what their experiences are in the US from their own perspectives. 

At the IHRC, we have been working with recent immigrants and refugees to tell their stories and preserve them for future generations. Since 2013, we’ve been creating, sharing, and preserving digital stories (short videos) with immigrant communities through our Immigrant Stories project. We believe that everyone has a story to tell. We have a new (and free) digital story-making website that allows anyone to write, create, edit, and share their own digital story all within our website! We also have free curricula to help high school, college, ELL learners, and organizations make their own stories using the website. It is now available in 7 languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, German, French, and Swedish.

Story creators can choose to share their stories with our online archive. Our collection - which is on the MN Digital Library as well as the Digital Public Library of America now has nearly 400 stories representing over 55 different groups. Many are from young people. It is a wonderful teaching resource as well! Check out some of our favorite stories that we recommend for classroom use here

Adam: It is clear that as a historian, you have spent a lot of time in various archives doing research. If you are like me, you end up building a list of your favorite documents to use to teach about a particular subject. What do you see as crucial documents or texts to understand im/migration and xenophobia in America? And, can you give us a sense of the why behind your selections?


Nothing excites me more than going into the archives to search for clues and untold stories. I have many favorites, but the ones I am listing here are also accessible online for teachers and students to use as well. 

xenophobia in america:

1854 advertisement for Know Nothing Soap. Library of Congress
  • Advertisement for Know Nothing Soap, Library of Congress. Xenophobia in America sells. This advertisement for Know Nothing soap nicely illustrates how the party’s anti-immigrant rhetoric was also tied to settler colonialism. The Know Nothings were the first to popularly use the term “native American.” This does not mean they were claiming indigenous roots. By co-opting the label “native” for themselves to describe white Anglo Saxon Protestants born in the U.S., the Know Nothings laid claim to power and privilege in the US as “real” Americans over both immigrants and Native Americans. 
  • Photograph album of Chinese men and women in Sierra County; Vault 184_001; California Historical Society. We see the development over time of xenophobic policies that first restricts immigrants from entering the US and then curbs the rights and freedom of movement of those already in the US. This album details the federal government’s first attempts to surveil and track Chinese immigrants in the US. I describe this document in more detail in America for Americans.
  • Immigrant Voices Project, Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation - first-person narratives of immigrants, including those detained at Angel Island
  • KKK pamphlet titled “America for Americans” from the 1920s shows the connection between xenophobia in America and white supremacy
  • Immigration-related cartoons from the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State. Do a search for “immigration” within the cartoon library and you’ll find wonderful sources like this one, “The High Tide of Immigration - a National Menace” from 1903, described in America for Americans

Dr. Erika Lee appears on PBS to discuss Race & America

Xenophobia in America: The Evolution of a Phenomenon

Adam: As you think across time and across experiences in the United States, how do you think xenophobia in America has remained constant throughout U.S. history? How do you think it has changed?


Xenophobia has endured in the US because it is a form of racism that has functioned alongside racism, settler colonialism, conquest, segregation, and other forms of institutionalized discrimination. It has been used to define certain populations as biologically inferior or dangerous, or both. Even after this kind of racism has fallen out of favor, race is still used to categorize peoples and bestow upon them particular characteristics and abilities, treating them as a group rather than as individuals. Xenophobia defines certain groups as threatening foreigners, outsiders, others and demonizes them as a group. Like racism, it is highly adaptable to fit particular needs and interests, castigating one group for being nonwhite and another for practicing a particular faith. It also includes as it excludes, turning some immigrants into “good” ones while demonizing new, “bad” ones: Irish Catholics were first demonized as threats to the US, but then as Irish Americans gained political power and influence, they became grudgingly accepted as real Americans. The same thing happened with southern and eastern Europeans and Asians over longer periods of time. Xenophobia in America has been promoted by political parties to shift the balance of power in the US - from the Know Nothings in the 19th century to conservatives in the 20th and 21st centuries. It has been supported by some of our most important institutions - democracy and capitalism - and is thus deeply embedded in our society, politics, and economy. 

Adam: Is there a moment, or a story about immigration and xenophobia from U.S. history that you wish everyone knew or at least understood?


The past 50+ years and the ways in which xenophobia in America adapted in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. I devote a whole chapter on this in America for Americans.

Adam:. I have so much to ask, but I will let this be the last question. After studying immigration, and now xenophobia, so carefully, what do you think you have learned about the United States and American identity?


Americans have always debated whether immigration was good or bad for the country. But in 2020, we are more divided than we have ever been before, and we have returned to using explicit racism to define the cruelest immigration policies. I wrote America for Americans to figure out why and how we got to this particular moment in history. And now that I think I know some of the answers, I also realize that we have a very long way to go to challenge, reverse, and abolish xenophobia in America. This problem will not be solved by simply changing who sits in the White House. It will only increase with climate-change-induced migration worldwide. Xenophobia in America is one of the most pressing challenges facing all of us today, not just in the US but globally. America for Americans demonstrates the urgent need for action. I hope that we can answer the call. 

Adam: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Your work continues to make an important contribution to my understanding of our shared history and I know I am not the only one.

To order a copy of America for Americans, or any of Dr. Lee’s books, please follow this link to the University of Minnesota bookstore

Adam Strom is the Director of Re-Imagining Migration. Throughout his career, Mr. Strom has connected the academy to classrooms and the community by using the latest scholarship to encourage learning about identity, bias, belonging, history, and the challenges and opportunities of civic engagement in our globalized world. The resources developed under Strom’s direction have been used in tens of thousands of classrooms and experienced by millions of students around the world including Stories of Identity: Religion, Migration, and Belonging in a Changing World and What Do We Do with a Difference? France and The Debate Over Headscarves in SchoolsIdentity, and Belonging in a Changing Great Britain, and the viewer’s guide to I Learn America. Before joining the Re-imagining Migration Project, Strom was the Director of Scholarship and Innovation at Facing History and Ourselves.

Re-Imagining Migration
Re-Imagining Migration's mission is to advance the education and well-being of immigrant-origin youth, decrease bias and hatred against young people of diverse origins, and help rising generations develop the critical understanding and empathy necessary to build and sustain welcoming and inclusive... See More

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