Cutting Through the Noise

Matthew Jacobson searches for humanity in immigration debate

Portrait of Matthew Jacobson

Matthew Jacobson is a professor of American studies and history at Yale University. He believes meaningful engagement in the immigration debate requires context and a sense of compassion. “We can expect migration within this hemisphere to continue as long as people still strive for a better life.”

The voice of Matthew Jacobson ’80 crackles with consternation. Mere months into the Trump administration, immigration dominates the news cycle. But, to Jacobson’s mind, it’s happening for all the wrong reasons.

“I don’t fancy myself a pundit, but as a historian I can recognize the patterns,” says Jacobson, a professor of American studies and history at Yale University. As the author of several books examining immigration and migration to the U.S., Jacobson sees an historical origin in current debates about wall-building and deportation.

“We don’t do ourselves any favors if we treat Trump like a departure from everything we love,” says Jacobson. “He’s deeply rooted in the complex politics of this country’s past.”

Peeling the onion

In Jacobson’s view, intensity around immigration issues started to grow during the previous administration.

“You could really see it coming over the horizon as early as 2009—even though immigration rates had plummeted pretty dramatically following the financial crash,” Jacobson says. “If you had just listened to the chatter of our public discussion, you never would have guessed that the numbers were going down.”

During this period, Muslim immigrants became a focus of attention.

“There was a huge spike in hate crimes and just the general concern over an Islamic presence in the U.S. during the Obama years that even outpaced what we saw in the wake of 9/11,” Jacobson notes. Knowing that public perception doesn't always align with reality, Jacobson’s challenge has been cutting through the noise and studying immigration in all its complexity and delicacy.

“It’s kind of like peeling an onion,” he says. “You’ve got the first layer, which is justice. That’s all people want to see. It’s lazy thinking to treat immigration as a criminal justice issue when there are so many added dimensions beyond that. “It’s a legal issue, a historical issue, and one of political economy. There are hemispheric politics at play when you talk about Mexican immigration. And it’s an issue of world geopolitics when you point to the Syrian refugee situation or other migrant populations from the Middle East. And, importantly, it’s an ethical issue.

As Jacobson sees it, meaningful engagement in the immigration debate requires context and a sense of compassion: “Our public discourse would be much better served if we got away from the criminal justice model of immigration and talked about it in more human terms.”

Austrian Jewish immigrants to Philadelphia, Feb. 1, 1913 on board ship SS_Rhein_coming from Bremen, Germany

Jacobson asks people to consider what it means to migrate to the United States legally or illegally, especially in historical and geopolitical context. This Austrian-Jewish family migrated to the U.S. from Bremen, Germany in 1913. Immigration declined rapidly after the Immigration Act of 1924. CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikipedia

Tracing roots

Jacobson’s intensive study of immigration dates back to his days as an Evergreen student.

“I came to school thinking I’d focus on psychology,” he says. “The first program I took was interdisciplinary. It was called Human Development in Psychohistorical Perspective. I took it because it was a psychology program, but it really moved me toward sociology and history.”

The program was taught by Richard Jones, a widely respected psychologist who was one of Evergreen’s founding faculty. Jones taught at the college from 1971 to 1987.

Jacobson says each of those fields combine to help us make sense of society in general—and immigration in particular. Already fascinated with the subject matter, he soon found an even deeper, more personal connection.

“Our yearlong project for that program was to write a biography of a family member,” Jacobson says. “I wrote about my immigrant grandfather. In a sense, my entire career as an immigration historian started with that freshman paper at Evergreen.”

Challenging the narrative

Armed with psychological and sociological perspectives on a topic that’s dear to his heart, Jacobson often critiques popular misconceptions. One stubbornly persistent argument bothers him more than the others. “You’ll hear someone claim that their immigrant grandparents were ‘good’ because they immigrated the ‘right way,’” Jacobson says, “as opposed to today’s immigrants coming here illegally.”

Jacobson believes a person making this argument is forgetting about the historical and ethical components of immigration, and instead focusing on criminal justice.

“Most of the people who make up today’s white ethnic groups—Irish, Polish, Jewish people, and others—came here prior to the Immigration Act of 1924,” Jacobson says. “Back then, there weren't laws on the books to create the category of ‘illegal immigration.’”

Jacobson asks people to consider what it means to migrate to the United States legally or illegally, especially in historical and geopolitical context. This Austrian-Jewish family migrated to the U.S. from Bremen, Germany in 1913. Immigration declined rapidly after the Immigration Act of 1924.

More recently, and especially since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, immigration laws have tightened up even as geopolitical events continue to contribute to mass immigration.

“I’m quite sure that my grandfather, who came from Lithuania when the Czar was ruling that area, would have come here illegally if he had to,” Jacobson says. “But there wasn't that kind of categorization. So he came with the millions upon millions of European immigrants who entered the country legally and who, in many cases, became pariah groups in their own right but were standing on the bedrock of American citizenship when they could get it.”

Seeking solutions

Jacobson strongly believes immigration is a net positive for people already living in America.

“Post-industrial societies don’t shrink to prosperity,” he says. “They grow to prosperity. Immigration is one of this country’s most consistent sources of growth. It’s an economic benefit. We’re never going to come up with a reasonable immigration policy until we come to terms with that fact.

Even if a wall is built across the border and harsher laws are passed, financial pressure will continue to drive immigrants toward the U.S., Jacobson believes.

“Even if the financial crisis slowed the pace of Latin American immigration, there are people living in fear, desperation, often as a result of policies originating in the U.S., and abject poverty in many Central and South American countries. We can expect migration within this hemisphere to continue as long as people still strive for a better life.”

Immigrant beet farmers.