Spotlight on Immigrant Stories

By Hillary Brady, October 27, 2015.

Fifty years ago this October, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was signed into law, forever changing American immigration policy and the country’s demographics. The 1965 law abolished quota systems established in the 1920s that put restrictions on earlier waves of immigration, and allowed for many groups of non-European immigrants to enter the country.

Photograph of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

In celebration of the anniversary, listen to stories of generations of American immigrants, part of the Immigrant Stories collection, a fascinating archival project organized by the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) at the University of Minnesota, and available to DPLA users via the Minnesota Digital Library.

The comprehensive digital storytelling project “came out of a desire to capture the stories of the most recent immigrants and refugees,” Immigrant Stories Project Manager Elizabeth Venditto said. The storiessome of men and women who arrived in the United States only months before, some whose families immigrated generations earliershare unique perspectives on the lives of immigrants and their families. These stories are in their own words, of their own making, and offer a personal insight into race and culture in the United States.

There are many ways that participants can submit stories to the Immigrant Stories archive. The model, which began with a pilot project last year in Minneapolis and St. Paul, is adaptable, to meet a variety of needs for participants of all ages, skill-levels, and languages. There are free community workshops to help guide participants, along with a version for college students, and for adult ESL learners. The IHRC creates close relationships with educators, and relies on low-cost, simple software.

There are few requirements as to how these digital stories should look. The general prompt is to create a three to five minute story about an aspect of the individual’s migration experience. The story doesn’t have to be in English. If participants choose to speak in another language, the IHRC will work with a translator to help create subtitles. The stories  incorporate a variety of multimedia elements, too, which creates a rich representation of the individual’s story– it’s not just one person’s words, it’s citizenship documents, family photos, music, or home videos, too.

It also provides new digital skills to men and women, even if that means facilitators work one on one with participants, particularly elders, to get the hang of the platform. It also gives people an outlet to talk about a relevant, contemporary issue as it’s happening, providing a complex and intimate look at the impact of policies like the Immigration and Nationality Act.

An image from Htun Lin's Immigrant Stories project.

An image from Htun Lin’s Immigrant Stories project.

A powerful example is the story of Htun Lin an ESL student and  Karen refugee from Burma who had been in the United States for six months before he created his story. During his time living in a refugee camp in Thailand, Htun Lin learned how to shoot and edit video. He was able to take part in the project while he was living in St. Paul, and Immigrant Stories gave him the space to share his story. There are other poignant stories like Htun Lin’s in the archive, like Thaigo Heilman, a DREAMer from Brazil, or Mustafa Jumale from Somalia who created his digital story in a class at the University of Minnesota.

While the project started in Minnesota, there are now programs in six locations in cities across the United States, representing a variety of immigrant communities and potential users. These programs take place in charter schools, museums, and other social service organizations. A recent NEH grant has allowed the IHRC to create an online portal where people can create and submit a digital story, regardless of location, which will go live in the summer of 2017.

This incredible archive gives contemporary immigrants and refugeeswho are in a situation where, Venditto describes, people in power are talking about and making decisions about them–the opportunity to tell their own stories in their own words in a way that is accessible and lasting. Their stories are well worth a listen! You can also follow the #MyImmigrantStory on Twitter to learn more about the project. 

View the Immigrant Stories collection here