Immigration and White People’s History

Today in response to immigration issues, we often hear white people say something like, “My ancestors came here legally, why can’t ‘they’?” This kind of wondering leads many to support deportations of anyone who is undocumented. 

It can be very eye-opening, however, for white people to look critically at immigration within our own family histories. Americans in general tend to think about issues a-historically, and many who are white regard immigration as having to do with “Others.” (You may be familiar with Ann Coulter’s bizarre claim that her ancestors were settlers rather than immigrants.) How might turning the lens for analyzing immigration to our own family pasts broaden our understanding?

First, learn to use vital statistics data that are digitally available to identify who in our family trees immigrated when, and from where. Family history research has become sufficiently popular that it is not difficult to find resources to use for this purpose. I maintain this blog that discusses, for example,  both free and subscription resources people can use. 

Second, learn to ask what push factors cause people to leave their nation of origin, and what pull factors draw them to specific places. These questions can begin to move past simplistic stereotypes, such as the notion that immigrants come for welfare benefits. For example, we can apply a push-pull analysis to German immigration during the late 1700s and 1800s. What many people do not know is the “pull factor” of practices aimed toward building a white nation. For instance, shipping companies engaged recruiters to go to Germany to encourage people to migrate to the U.S., the shipping companies arranging transportation (German Immigration, 2004). These recruitment efforts were particularly successful during the Prussian wars and years when agricultural harvests were bad (“push factors”). One can extend a push-pull analysis by also asking what kinds of punishments immigrant arrivals experienced because of who they were (such as language discrimination), and what kinds of privileges they experienced (such as access to ethnic organizations).

A third tool is examining immigration and naturalization laws and processes over different periods in the nation’s history, mainly to see what has and has not change, and which groups have been favored or disfavored. For example, the only requirements of the first naturalization law of 1790 were having resided in the U.S. for two years, being white, and being of good moral character. In order to qualify for “free land” through homesteading (land the U.S. took away from the Indigenous peoples), during the early years of the U.S., a white male only needed to announce intention to be naturalized. It wasn’t until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that specific groups were excluded, and the National Origins Act of 1924 that immigrants were required to produce papers (See Why ‘legal immigration’ doesn’t apply to early immigrants to the U.S., 2018).

So, in response to the thought that “my ancestors came here legally,” many of us who are white should recognize that at least some of our ancestors were recruited, never asked to show papers, afforded an easy naturalization process, and given Indigenous people’s land to use for farming. Immigrants today, whether documented or undocumented, experience push factors that are probably similar to those white people’s ancestors experienced, pull factors that may or may not be similar, and punishing factors of racism. But what is very different are the immigration laws and processes for becoming a naturalized citizen. I hope that studying this history in a personalized way might help white Americans to develop more empathy for what immigrant families are experiencing, and a commitment to human rights of people, whether documented or not.


A slightly different version of this essay appeared in a 2018 issue The Teacher Educator (vol. 53, no. 3) on p. 232-233.


  1. Stanley Shannon says

    My ancestors, colonials all, did not come here legally. They were components of a military conquest of other people’s lands. The natives fought back, we won. End of story. That is what human beings have been doing to one another all over this planet since at least the early neolithic. That is what we are supposed to do. The people migrating here today are supposed to be doing that, and we are supposed to be resisting them. The very existence of distinct ethnic groups is absolute proof of that process. We should be proud of our own and wish to see it be demographically dominate into the future. It is the oldest, most time tested, universally accepted form of human behavior in all of history. We are not supposed to feel guilty or bad about it in any way at all. We are supposed to be proud of it. And should be. I am. There was absolutely nothing wrong with Europeans taking lands away from other people who in most cases had taken that same land away from some earlier group. I do not feel even the slightest emotional angst of any kind over the issue and neither should anyone else. Stop letting yourself be emotionally black mailed over this kind of nonsense.

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