Tracing Immigrant Communities’ History

America is a nation of immigrants. We’ve all heard it, and for most of the population, it’s true. Tracking down one’s heritage is practically a national pastime, trying to find out which ancestor walked through Ellis Island from where. Sites like Ancestry.com and 23andMe are very popular. But for some communities, like my own Pakistani heritage, this can be difficult, for a variety of reasons. Our communities are often young in the United States; for example, my parents were the first people in my family to come here, just two years before I was born. There just isn’t much history to look up.

I thought about this, and had an idea. What if, rather than looking at the history of a single family, we looked at the history of an entire community of immigrants? This could start out with a site for one group; for example, Pakistanis in Texas. The site could then display relevant information: perhaps a map of where Pakistanis ended up, a graph showing the change in immigration numbers over time, or a short entry of the first recorded immigrant in that group. There could be a section for users to submit their own stories, with a short text, image, or video of them or their parents coming to America for the first time.

The Humanities Truck’s COVID-19 Project provides a good idea of what the map could look like.

This project could be useful for a variety of people. Members of the community themselves may want to learn more about their history, or they may want to contribute and let others know about their community. Many immigrants are proud of their journey, and want to share their experiences. Other people who want to learn about the diverse nature of the United States could also benefit from this project. Researchers could also potentially use the site as a source of data. In addition, if the project does well, it could be expanded to other states or immigrant groups, broadening the reach of the project.

To source this project, census records and immigration records would likely be the primary sources, as these are usually the most reliable sources of information on immigrants. However, the communities themselves would also be excellent sources. Many immigrant communities have their own newspapers or magazines that could be of great use. In addition, users themselves could also submit their own contributions. In terms of technical work, mapping programs could be used to display information about the communities’ locations. Digital text analysis could help trawl through massive loads of immigration records.

However, there are some challenges in this idea. Number one is privacy. Since many of these immigrant communities are relatively new, showing information like immigrant’s names could affect people right now. For that reason, it would be best to anonymize the data, saying, for example, that 110 Pakistanis entered Texas this year instead of having their names. If a user wants to volunteer their story with their name, some kind of release form would probably be needed. Scale is also a big question. Even with digital text analysis, there are a lot of records to go through, and a smaller scale may be necessary, depending on the resources available to the project.

One Reply to “Tracing Immigrant Communities’ History”

  1. Shaan this is a really great concept. I think a community memory site focused on history of Pakistani immigrant experiences in Texas could be a really helpful way to both support community memory and change some folks assumptions and ideas about Texas communities and history.

    I think you’re very right to draw out the questions about privacy. To that end, I think a big part of this would involve sorting through how to engage with community members and establish trust and consent. In that vein, it might be interesting to explore the work that the team behind the South East Asian American Digital Archive have been doing (https://www.saad ). That project has done a lot of work around engaging with local communities in developing their approach and model.

    That is to say, that a project like this could be about identifying existing public records, but it could also become more focused on supporting people contributing their own stories and memories too.

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