Great Migration Debates: Keywords in Historical Perspective
Published on: Jul 28, 2006

Donna R. Gabaccia is Rudolph J. Vecoli Professor of Immigration History and director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. She recently edited, with Vicki Ruiz, American Dreams, Transnational Lives (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming).

When confronting recent debates, historians of migration often muse over similarities between past and present. Certainly there are so many continuities in the positive and negative qualities attributed to foreigners a century ago and today that one wonders whether any new data could ever possibly resolve such long-standing disagreements.

Here, however, I want to focus not on the persisting stereotypes of foreigners but on striking discontinuities among those persons—almost all of them natives and citizens—who debate public policy. Today’s debates feature two key phrases—“illegal immigrants” and “nation of immigrants”—that especially divide the debaters. Neither phrase figured in the passionate debates of the past. Today, whether they worry over illegal immigrants or celebrate a nation of immigrants, North Americans agree they are debating about “immigrants.” That consensus is so fundamental that few realize how new such terminology is. By acknowledging the newness of “immigration” and “immigrants” as keywords we can see what policy debates reveal about the debaters. Historical analysis provides a mirror into which North Americans can peer in order to better understand themselves and their own attitudes toward foreigners.

The study of language and meaning has been dominated recently by post-modern philosophers. Now the availability of searchable, digitized, online collections of texts opens up new methodological options. Using digitized sources, scholars can more easily identify and more effectively contextualize the invention, use and spatial or temporal diffusion of key words and phrases through systematic analysis of vast collections of texts. Boolean searches (e.g., of immigr* and “x,” where “immigr*” covers all variations of the root word and “x” is a second term or a qualifier) facilitate analysis of the webs of association—between and among words—that help produce meaning. Specialized online collections (of digitized newspapers, government documents, periodicals, books, library catalogues, and personal narratives) document linguistic practices among diverse social groups—the urban and political elites of New York and Washington, African-Americans, feminists, southerners. (Tellingly, digitized texts written by immigrants are still rare. But see

Historical analysis of policy debates is scarcely new (see Zolberg 2006). Still, analysis of digitized texts provides new insights. For example, in the 1850s, the supporters of the nativist American Party (also known as the “Know-Nothings”) complained mainly about “foreigners” and about “foreign” influences (especially in the Catholic Church) at a time when most of their contemporaries wrote instead about “emigrants” and “emigration.” Searching the vast “Making of America” digitized collection of nineteenth-century books and periodicals (  generates 51,570 references to emigr* but only 16,000 for immigr*.

Occasionally Congressmen of the antebellum years referred to “emigrants” in ways we do today (as persons leaving the U.S.)—for example, when referring to emancipated slaves returning to Africa ( More often, however, “emigrant” encompassed both persons we would today call internal migrants (those moving about within a country) and those we label “immigrants” (foreigners arriving from another country). Immigr* and emigr* were not completely interchangeable terms, so variations in their use point to how meaning differed in the nineteenth century. For example, discussions of emigr* appear with the greatest frequency in texts from the nineteenth-century West. In a collection focused on Illinois (, references to emigr* outnumber immigr* four to one. In Illinois “emigrants” included both English-speaking citizens arriving from New England and those traveling to the prairies from Germany or Sweden. “Emigrant” often appeared as a synonym for “colonizer” or “settler”; “emigration” suggested colonization not just of the U.S. but of other empires. European settlers of Australia, Canada, and South Africa also preferred “emigrant” when discussing the British Empire. In both contexts, emigr* seems to have called attention to the pioneering act of “going out” and to what migrants carried with them—the civilization of Europe in general and of Protestantism in particular. Apparently, no English-speaking American in the U.S. in the 1850s expected “emigrants” to adopt the culture or social mores of the earliest natives of the west—the Indians—although they did expect that life on American soil made emigrants builders of an American empire, not of a British, German or Swedish one.

Even this association of “emigrants” with colonization and with the transplantation of Europe’s “civilization” to the lands of the native “savages” was far from universal, however. Congressmen also called American Indians “emigrants” when they were forced over the “trail of tears” to the trans-Mississippi territories in the 1830s ( And the digitized New York Times also regularly described the Irish fleeing starvation to Castle Garden in the 1850s as “emigrants.”

The gradual switch to “immigration” and “immigrants” as the preferred language for discussions of international border-crossing can best be traced in a digitized newspaper with a long run. Figure 1 tracks the actual occurrences of immigr* and emigr* in the New York Times over 80 years. In the 1850s, references to emigr* outnumbered those to immigr* by a factor of between five and ten in any given year. By 1930, the relative frequency of the two terms had almost exactly reversed. It was in the 1890s that references to immigr* began to consistently outnumber those to emigr*.

Figure 1
“Emigr*” and “Immigr*” in the New York Times, 1851-1930

Timing alone thus suggests that the closing of the frontier and the completion of western colonization encouraged the shift. Relatively fewer Irish emigrants headed west and many more of them settled in cities, so in New York Times reportage the ratio of references to Irish emigr* and to Irish immigr* was only 2 to 1, even in the years prior to 1890. Whereas Americans associated “emigrants” with the settlement of the land, they associated “immigrants” with wage labor. Boolean searches in the New York Times suggest that ratios of immigr* to emigr* were much higher in articles treating labor (3:1), wages (2:1), and strikes (2.5:1). Because African Americans so often viewed foreigners as potential competitors for waged work, their newspapers, too, as documented in a pre-1890 collection (, discussed immigr* more often than did contemporaneous Illinois texts.

Still, one would not want to focus exclusively on economy in explaining this transition in the language of debates about international migration. Figure 1 also suggests how a changing political context influenced terminology. The ratio of immigr* to emigr* jumped permanently upwards from 1869–71 and again in 1882. After 1888, references to immigr* became a persistent majority but only after 1920 did immigr* attain the very large majorities emigr* had enjoyed in the 1850s.