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Historian Paul Finkelman Provides New Context to U.S. Immigration Debate at Readex-Sponsored ALA Event [VIDEO]

Posted on 07/06/2017

We are a nation of immigrants, but sometimes it seems we forget that. Professor Paul Finkelman offered a stark reminder of this at the 2017 American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago, and attendees of his Readex-sponsored talk left with a fresh lens through which to view today’s immigration debate.

From Hollywood to Silicon Valley, from baseball stadiums to boardrooms, immigrants and their children enhance our daily lives and culture. Consider the contributions of Andrew Carnegie, Alexander Graham Bell and Albert Einstein. Immigrants, including Irving Berlin, Greta Garbo, Sophia Loren and Joe DiMaggio, have enriched our music, art, and entertainment. Think of the impact more recent innovations by immigrants—like the founding of Google and the creation of the Pentium Micro-Processor—have had on our world.

Ten percent of the first Congress was foreign-born, and immigrants continue to fill critical leadership roles in our government today.

“From the beginning to the present, immigrants and the children of immigrants have played a fairly significant role in American politics,” Finkelman said. “In the last half century we’ve had two Secretaries of State who were immigrants.”

Add to that a foreign-born Secretary of the Treasury and two ambassadors to the United Nations. As Dr. Finkelman noted, unless you are 100% Native American, you are of immigrants.

But how quickly, as a nation, we forget.

Since the late 19th century, the Statue of Liberty has symbolized freedom, standing as a welcoming beacon to millions of immigrants reaching America’s shore. The poem at the base of the statue, written by Emma Lazarus, declares: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddle masses yearning to breathe free.” 

Is the United States still a welcoming haven?

Finkelman posed this question to the audience and shared stories of his own grandparents’ journeys to personalize the concept of illegal immigration.

Finkelman, along with two other law professors, published a piece on Huffington Post about their families’ immigration stories. Based on reactions, the story clearly resonated with readers across the country. Finkelman explained: 

Throughout his research, Finkelman has relied on primary documents, including several critically important publications found in Readex digital collections.

“As a working scholar…there is nothing better than the U.S. [Congressional] Serial Set,” Finkelman told the audience. “If you have students who want to do something on anything, it’s going to be in the U.S. Serial Set. You’re going to find fantastic reports.”

Referring to his own research, Finkelman analyzed the ebb and flow of immigrants to America from the country’s earliest days. However, in 1921, the United States began limiting immigration by establishing specific quotas for each country.

With these restrictions, immigration dropped dramatically after 1924. Finkelman believes this decrease had a significant effect on how we view immigrants today because it resulted in future generations who didn’t personally know immigrants growing up—beyond their grandparents. And, he hypothesizes, this lack of exposure is contributing to the current state of fear.

Many thanks to Dr. Finkelman for sharing his expertise and offering new context for examining today’s immigration issues. More than 100 college and university librarians attended the talk, and this audience never disappoints when it comes to the Q&A session that follows.


Part of the pleasure in @Readex breakfast is watching librarians geek out during speaker Q&A #alaac17 #nerdclub

— Wookiee Librarian (@Wookieelib) June 25, 2017


We hope to see you at a future Readex breakfast presentation. Please let your Readex account executive know you would like to receive an invitation.

The full recording of Finkelman's presentation and recordings of previous ALA breakfast presentations hosted by Readex are available on our Event Talks page. 

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