Syllabus: Immigration, Race, and Law in the United States: Historical Roots of Contemporary Immigration Debates


This course will focus on three legal monuments that have had a significant impact on U.S. immigration history. Beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, we will explore the foundational role of the Chinese Exclusion Act in shaping subsequent immigration ideology, policy, and bureaucracy. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first immigration law to exclude an entire race based on an argument of national defense and sovereignty. Second, we will discuss the Immigration Act of 1924 which imposed strict immigration quotas based on racial preferences. These eugenically-derived quotas privileged northern European “nationalities,” while severely limiting immigration from so-called less desirable areas. Third, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act was a Civil Rights Era legislation ending national origins preferences with a new system privileging work visas and family reunification. We will discuss the role of the Cold War in shaping this significant change. As a result of the 1965 Immigration Act, the immigrant population has shifted dramatically with the greatest numbers of immigrants arriving from Asia and Latin America.  This course will also address subjective experiences of immigration by investigating a variety of immigrant stories drawn from the participants. By the end of the course, you should have a clearer understanding of the content and context of these three legal monuments. You should also have a sense of development and change in immigration law and policy.

Required Texts

  1. Rick Burns and Li-Shin Yu, The Chinese Exclusion Act, DVD (PBS Distribution, 2018).
  2. Mae Ngai, “The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924,” The Journal of American History. 96, No. 1 (1999), p. 67-92.
  1. Mae Ngai, “This is How Immigration Reform Happened 50 Years Ago. It can Happen Again,” The Nation, Oct. 2, 2015.
  2. Daniel Tichenor, “Lyndon Johnson’s Ambivalent Reform: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 3 (2016), 691-705.


By the end of the class, you should have completed a draft of your immigration narrative. You should also have a personal immigration binder.

Class Policies


8 formal class sessions

2 small group sessions

Computer/Cell Phone policy

Please do not take photos or record sessions without explicit permission of the instructor and the class members. Please ask express permission of all those included in a photo prior to circulating anything on social media. Please respect the right to privacy of all members of the course.

Rhetorical Resilience and Community Standards

Immigration is a hot topic of political debate, and many feel passionately about this topic. I do hope to have informed conversations based on evidence while avoiding personal attacks and emotional appeals. We know that learning cannot take place in a space where individuals feel defensive or attacked. Any statements that demean and dehumanize groups and individuals will not be accepted. I respectfully request that those with a tendency to speak freely and frequently restrain themselves from dominating discussion while working toward a practice of active listening and inclusion of all in the conversation. I reserve the right to dismiss any individual from session who violates Middlebury community standards.

Accessibility Services

Please do not hesitate to let me know what I can do to facilitate your participation in this course. There are a number of accommodations that can be incorporated into the course and the classroom spaces to ensure everyone’s full participation.


All readings are listed on the session in which they take place

Thursday, August 30

1:30-3:30 p.m.

Session 1

Introduction to the Course


Broad Overview of U.S. Migration Studies 

Friday, August 31

Meet in Small Groups over breakfast—Person 1 & 2 present

8:45 a.m.-10:30 a.m.

Session 2

The Chinese Exclusion Act: Contexts of Labor and Race

10:45 a.m.-12 p.m.

Session 3

The Chinese Exclusion Act: Legal Precedent for Immigration Restriction

1:30 p.m.- 3:30 p.m.

Session 4

The 1924 Immigration Act (Johnson-Reed Act): Eugenics and Race

Saturday, September 2

Meet in small groups over breakfast—person 3 & 4 present 

8:45 a.m.-10:30 a.m.

Session 5

1924 Immigration Act: Immigration myths and Illegal aliens

10:45 a.m.-12 p.m.  

Session 6

1965 Immigration Act (Hart-Cellar Immigration Act)

Cold War Civil Rights

Long term Consequences

1:30 p.m.- 3:30 p.m.

Class Session 7

Is immigration reform possible? Policy implications for today

Sunday, September 3

10-11 a.m

Class Session 8

Next Steps


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