Been doing some reading lately in what is a new area for me, and doing some thinking about it.

As far as I can tell from what I’ve read so far, the common denominator across the various examples that can be called “immigration history” is motion. More specifically, immigration historians write about the movement of people. Strictly speaking, “immigration” is only a part of what immigration historians write about, and the term is somewhat misleading. To call someone an “immigrant” is to view them from the perspective of the new location in which they arrive, generally with the assumption that they will stay there. It’s not clear to me why “immigration” should be the focus rather than “emigration”, after all, every person who resettles in a new location also left an old location. “Emigration” is not sufficient either, though.

“Emigration” takes the perspective of the location left behind by someone who leaves. It’s not clear to me why the “sending” location should be the focus of inquiry either. There might be reasons for doing so in some cases, as there might be reasons for focusing on – or viewing matters from the perspective of – the receiving country, but there is no particular reason why one or the other perspective should define the field and give it a name.

Neither perspective, sending or receiving location, is sufficient for addressing so-called “sojurners”, migrants who did and do not permanently relocate but who instead stay for a while then move back to their point of origin, or who relocate to another location or locations. In those instances, the term “migration history” might be better, except that seems to emphasize those who didn’t settle over those who did. And what about those who didn’t plan to settle but did? Or those who planned to settle – or to leave – but for all sorts of reasons didn’t?

Perhaps there isn’t an ideal name. After all, not all (im/e-)migrants and (im/e-)migrations are identical, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s difficult to find a catch-all term. Names aside, what makes an immigration historian (feel free to replace this term with another) an immigration historian? What motion is within the field and what is not?

A Chicago neighborhood resident’s walk to the corner store doesn’t, unless there are other additional determinations to be added to that resident (whereas, this walk alone might fall within the area of urban history, or local history of Chicago). Would this resident’s vacation to Door County, Wisconsin, count? What if it was an annual vacation? What if the (annual?) vacation was a trip to Portland (either Maine or Oregon)? What if it was to London (Ontario or England)? I’m not exactly sure why, but my intuition is that these do not count as immigration, exactly.

The Chicago resident’s walk to the bus followed by a commute to work would also not count. But what if the trips to Wisconsin, Maine, Oregon, Canada, and England were not vacations but rather trips for work? Either flights for business meetings or bus/train/car journeys? Do they count then? This is closer. Especially if the trips were not day or weekend trips for meetings and conferences but rather were trips with more extended stays.

There are a few traits implied here as to what counts as falling within immigration history, at least according to my not-thought-out impulse. Each trait is of course subject to question and there may be problem cases which are hard to sort. The first trait is that the motion not be leisure. A vacation is not migration. The second is that the length of the movement be of some indeterminate distance describable as “large.” The third is that the duration – and/or the intended duration? – be of some indeterminate quantity greater which exceeds the indeterminate quantity of time spent on travel in the sense of tourism. A tourist is not an immigrant, so to speak.

The following is problematic and I’m hesitant over some of its possible implications, but it may be useful for getting clearer on some things. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the migrant is a figure of difference and (im/e-)migration history is the study of that difference. The greater the difference bound up with any given case of motion, the more clearly the case falls within (im/e-)migration history. Or rather, this is one index for a case’s falling within immigration history. Relevant differences could include national boundary (particularly legal bounaries), language, “culture” (whatever that means), race, gender, sexuality, employment, economic circumstances, climate, and geographic distance.

We might say that these differences are relevant when they constitute borders which are crossed. In that case, they are not only differences but hierarchies, power relations, and/or obstacles of some sort. These latter three categories are not mutually exclusive. The order might be better in reverse: not all obstacles are power relations or hierarchies. All power relations are obstacles of some sort, but they (perhaps) aren’t necessarily hierarchies. All hierarchies are power relations and are (therefore) obstacles. For example, being unable to contact someone on the other side of the world due to time differences and being unable to get somewhere quickly due to distance and technological limits are obstacles. (I simply can not get to London, either in Canada or England, in two hours time.) Prices of phone cards and plane tickets are obstacles bound up with power relations and hierarchies. Being unable to contact someone and to travel due to legal and cultural barriers are clearly expressions of hierarchy.

If this makes sense, then it seems fair to say that immigration history is the history of those who cross borders. That means it is also the history of what is and is not a border, and how that distribution of being border/not-border changes over time. This seems like a good start of a definition, but it’s too inclusive. Border crossers and borders are an important part of what counts as immigration history. It may be a necessary condition but it is not a sufficient condition for defining immigration history. Specifically spatial motion (we might say non-metaphorical motion) is another necessary condition for counting as (im/e-)migration. Time is also important as noted above, the duration of the crossing.

There are many ways to study (im/e-)migration, to do immigration history. One can start from a point of departure (emigrants from Larkhall, Scotland). One can start from a point of arrival (immigrants to Mount Olive, Illinois in the US). One can fix two or more locations which there is motion between, among, or through. In all of these one can do the following. One can study the effects of the leaving/arriving/passing through on those who are left/met on arrival/met on passing through. This is a sort of place based approach. One can also study those who left/arrived/passed through before, during, and/or after their leaving/arriving/passing through. This is a migrant based approach. In both of these types, one could focus on one group, however that group is defined, or one could focus interactions with other groups and the composition of new groups, however these groups are defined. In both of these types one could also study reasons for the motion(s) in question, their sources, and their (lack of) change over time. One could also study the borders containing the motion(s) in question, their sources, and their (lack of) change over time. One could also study the mode of movement: expulsion counts, for example, as does what is now known as “human trafficking”.

All sorts of borders are involved with migration and it is safe to assume more than one will always operate in any given case. There is no particular reason why one border or type – national borders, as in “American Immigration” – should be the primary one which defines or sets the norm for all cases. One may focus on one or the other border or borders for the purposes of a given inquiry and the work may still count as (im/e-)migration history. For example, the movement of blacks from the southern U.S. to Detroit during the so-called Great Migration counts, despite there not being a national border crossed. This is important, because the borders which limit immigrant movements can be repeated at the conceptual level in such a way that inhibits the ability to understand and question these borders themselves. If the study of migration presumes the nation and national borders, for example, it will offer less for understanding how the nation and national borders came about, how they were made and remade over time, and how they are being made and remade and (perhaps, and hopefully) unmade.

Immigration history studies movement which crosses borders and the construction of borders which inhibit movement. It’s not surprising then that (im/e-)migration history as a field has fuzzy borders, which are themselves studied and remade. Immigration history as a field overlaps with labor history, gender history, ethnic history, economic history, cultural history, and (it is safe to assume) any given national history, both within a given nation and in its relation to others. In a sense, (im/e-)migration history problematizes these borders, as well as borders between history and other disciplines. The degree to which migration history is fixed as immigration or emigration or sojourner history is perhaps the degree to which the borders within the discipline of history and the borders between history and other disciplines are fixed. This may be necessary for any given project, and is likely to be necessary for those seeking a work permit within some bordered space within the university. If so, in those cases, these borders should be recognized as also historical divisions, not eternal ones, and should be subject to inquiry in order to understand how they are being made and remade and (perhaps, and hopefully) unmade.