Recently I got a letter in the mail from former U.S. Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal. This was not completely out of the blue, since I had sent him, with some misgivings, a copy of my new book containing recollections he shared of his first job in business in the 1950s.
Blumenthal had dispatched that episode of his life in his memoir with a few swift paragraphs. “I spent four intense and insane years at Crown Cork International,” he wrote. There he had a complicated relationship with his then-boss who, like Blumenthal, came to America as a young refugee from a war-torn Europe.
When I interviewed him about that relationship for the book, Blumenthal voiced skepticism about my project so I was doubtful he’d think much of it. So I was relieved to read his letter: “You may recall that I voiced some surprise that there was enough in your subject matter for an interesting story,” he wrote. “Now I see that there was!”
This echoed what researcher Madeline Lohman sees in immigrant narratives. The people closest to them — often the children — don’t get a full picture until much later. The Immigrant Stories collective started, says Lohman, a senior researcher with Advocates for Human Rights, “with second generation, and 1.5-generation immigrant youth” who pushed for recognition of the stories of their elders, stories that had for years been obscured by barriers of language, trauma or feelings of shame. For their generation, uncovering these stories triggered a desire to illuminate those experiences for the community.
“They feel like that their need to discover [those stories] was sort of a flaw in the system” of public memory. The collective wanted to ensure other narratives weren’t lost. With the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center, Lohman created materials that put individuals’ stories at the heart of a curriculum to bring students to the experience and issues of immigration.
The lesson plans are free online, featuring different backgrounds and phases of immigration. They provide context about the U.S. immigration system and its history. Using real people’s stories “humanizes the conversation about immigration without requiring immigrant students themselves to be put on the spot.” It also shows immigrant students that their stories “are so valuable that we want to put them in a university archive.”
Each story’s path to citizenship shows “the human cost of our immigration system and what that feels like.” Sometimes people see in them their own family’s story: “Wow, I know that my Norwegian grandfather just snuck across the Canadian border and got a farm. And it never occurred to me that that’s not a way in anymore.” Or, “My family went through some bureaucracy at Ellis Island. And I guess that’s still happening.”
More often someone in the audience has had a family member go through the immigration system. “They just chime in: ‘Yeah, it’s a mess.’”
Using the lessons in presentations, Lohman hears different audience reactions but they often share a similar refrain. “Overwhelmingly, people don’t actually know the facts about how our immigration system works. They have very vague, nebulous ideas based on the media or what have you.” Making clear how difficult the process actually is opens their eyes.
With the polarization around immigration policy, calling for changes to the immigration system itself doesn’t seem productive. So her ask is more focused. How can you make people feel welcome in your community? When she speaks at schools, she’ll say: Check your school policies on when you ask for Social Security numbers. What do you do if Immigration calls a teacher? Do you collect student data that is confidential? Afterward, most people want to make changes.
“We’ve seen this huge increase in support, interest and desire to learn more,” Lohman says.
After Crown Cork (which also had Virginia facilities for decades), Blumenthal rose to a position in the Johnson White House where he witnessed a historic change in immigration policy, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. A graphic in Lohman’s curriculum notes the law “repeals longstanding ethnic quota system and gives priority to family reunification.”
The result, Blumenthal told me, “was an unmistakably new kaleidoscopic racial and multi-ethnic mix that enriched the country’s dynamism and vitality.”