The Worlds of the Immigration Historian

July 1, 2016
By: Marc Sanko

As a graduate student, steadily advancing in my dissertation, I often get the question,  “What type of history do you study?” Of course the simple and easy answer is, well Immigration and Ethnic History. When participating at a place like the North American Labor History Conference, the common follow up question goes something along the lines of “Oh and you do labor history as well?” In the ever present quest to categorize and compartmentalize fields, the immigration historian has the need to survive in several fields at once. I even go as far as to say that we immigration historians must cover an even spread of disciplines in order to write a complete, and ultimately interesting, history. Gone are the days of viewing immigration simply through the eyes of the migrants themselves as Oscar Handlin so boldly advanced, and even the study of migration as a transnational phenomenon has been covered with depth and quality scholarship.

What I see as the future of immigration history, and it can be seen in the newer works in the field, is a blending of the immigration story with the wider historical world. My own project hopes to embrace that attitude, after all if I did not I risk being a hypocrite! If we look broadly at migration we can find so many avenues that complicate the historical narrative, and when it boils down to it that is what we all seek or at least something approaching that idea. For me, it is examining the skilled labor and planned emigration of Maltese people to North America during the exclusionary period. How did such a people traverse increasingly stringent legal barriers to their entry between 1921 and 1965 to establish significant communities in both the United States and Canada? By looking at both the social and economic aspects of their migration as well as the diplomatic intricacies between the sending nation, the receiving nation, and in this case the mother nation (Malta was at the time a colony of Britain), an interesting and intriguing story emerges.

On the one hand we have four national governments leveraging one another through the ideas of colonialism. To cite a few examples, we see the Maltese press the British for a higher portion of the British quota; there are British and Canadian disputes over their role in the Commonwealth over accepting immigrants from other regions of the empire; and then there is the diplomacy between the United States and the British Empire negotiating for reasonable treatment of British citizens. Within this diplomatic mix lay issues of the fluidity of race, the qualification of “skilled” or “unskilled” labor, and religion. While these forces roar overhead, on the ground the Maltese create their own world based on their own flexible notions of identity. They are British in one moment, American or Canadian in another, perhaps a trained metalworker and an English speaker in yet another. And still, they can be simply a Catholic or an immigrant. Regardless, many embrace their new homeland while simultaneously ignoring their new national boundaries to join a perceived Maltese community that stretches across borders, oceans, and in reality the globe.

Amid rules aimed at keeping these people from entering both the United States and Canada, these individuals still came. It would be far easier to tell a story of the migrants’ life in Detroit or perhaps compare the communities of Detroit and Toronto than to ask how the differences in Canadian and American immigration law affected the social pressures faced by immigrants in both North American nations. In that case, I would still be an immigration historian and might be quite pleased about that fact. But that is not me, and that should not be us. We as a collective whole are like the stories we research and write, far more complex than they appear to the naked eye.

I am an Immigration Historian.

I am a Labor Historian.

I am a Diplomatic Historian, a British Historian, a Canadian Historian, an American Historian, a 20th Century Historian, an avid lover of the history of people in the Great Lakes region, and a Public Historian.

As I move further along the path of graduate school, I encourage all young and eager historians entering this discipline to tell tales that incorporate and engage diverse fields that can deliver these rich and wonderful histories that can continue to shape our field in the decades to come.

Marc Sanko

Marc Sanko is a third year PhD student at West Virginia University with a major field in U.S. Immigration and Ethnic History. Mr. Sanko has focused on the Maltese community in Detroit for several projects including his M.A. thesis on the importance of the Maltese Catholic Church within the community. His dissertation is tentatively titled, Britishers in Two Worlds: Maltese Immigrants in Detroit and Toronto, 1919-1970.

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