IEHS Online

Chienyn Chi Interviews Creators of Immigrants in COVID America Project – Erika Lee and Maddalena Marinari

Posters in LA stating “Protect Our Essential Workers Wear a Mask” in Spanish and English

CC: I’m so excited that I get a chance to ask you about your Immigrants in Covid America project. I thought I would introduce myself briefly. My name is Chienyn Chi and I’m the editor/digital humanities intern of Not From Here, the digital publication of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS). I also recently got accepted to be an Assistant Professor of English at Southern Nazarene University! I’m currently working on my book, Madness, Psychiatry, Empire: Decolonizing Empiricism Through Literary Crossings. My research investigates the intersection of medicine, illness, madness, and empire represented in different Global South literatures. As you can see, I am deeply invested in the history of medicine and race and medical humanities. That is why I was immediately drawn to your project. Can you explain what this project is, how it came about, and how it relates to your own research as a scholar? 

Dr. Erika Lee, Regents Professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota.

EL: Hello, Chienyn! It’s so nice to “meet” you and huge Congratulations on your new position! Thanks for giving us the opportunity to discuss the Immigrants in COVID America project. Its origins actually pre-date the pandemic. Maddalena and I share a commitment to using our expertise in immigration history to shape public dialogues, influence policies, and hopefully, create change. We were part of a group of immigration historians brought together by the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, which I direct, and the IEHS, then under Professor Maria Cristina Garcia. In the weeks after the 2016 elections, a number of us met at the Social Science History Association meeting to discuss how we might collectively respond to the blatantly false, xenophobic, and racist narrative about immigration that the recently-elected President Trump had promoted during his campaign. The result was the #ImmigrationSyllabus. (See also this article in the JAEH).

Then in the spring of 2020, as the U.S. experienced soaring infection rates and President Trump applied his anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies to the pandemic, such as calling it the “Chinese virus,” and using public health as a justification to pause, and then restrict immigration, Maddalena and I knew that this was another historical moment that was crucial to document. 

Dr. Maddalena Marinari, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Gustavus Adolphus College

MM – Congratulations from me as well!!! This is very exciting news. Thank you also for your interest in our project. As Erika mentioned, last spring we both had a sense of urgency about what we felt was another pivotal moment in the history of U.S. immigration. After talking about it, we decided that we wanted to create a digital depository of media coverage about the impact of COVID-19 on migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. We wanted to work on this project for several reasons. The first was to help preserve the stories, experiences, and perspectives of individuals who are often marginalized in the historical record. We also wanted to create a resource that researchers, activists, policymakers, and artists could use. Our project adds a crucial dimension to our understanding of the pandemic and reveals the specific economic, cultural, and psychological repercussions on immigrants and refugees. It also captures how the pandemic is dramatically reshaping American society and many Americans’ perception of the United States as “a nation of immigrants.” Through the IHRC, Erika and a team of graduate student researchers developed the first iteration of the project, collected data, annotated sources, and launched the website during the summer of 2020. I led our grant-writing efforts and with funding from the Social Science Research Council, my undergraduate students at Gustavus Adolphus and I continued the work through the spring of 2021.

CC: I really see the urgency and importance of your project. Can you speak to the exigency and seriousness of how the covid-19 disease is disproportionately affecting immigrant, Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color? 

EL: Infection and mortality data by race and immigration status has not been sufficiently tracked and these topics will be the source of much needed research in the future. But numerous studies have already shown higher rates of infection and death in communities of color. The CDC reported that nationally, American Indians and Alaska Natives, Blacks, and Latinx people were four times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than non-Hispanic whites. [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “COVID-19 Hospitalization and Death by Race/Ethnicity,” CDC Website, November 30, 2020. See also the COVID Racial Data Tracker (The Atlantic)] We also know that as members of these communities of color, immigrants and refugees bore the brunt of the virus’ deadly toll. Essential workers, the vast majority of whom are women, people of color, and foreign born, played outsized roles on the front lines of the war against the virus in the health-care, food production, fulfillment, hospitality, agriculture, and transportation industries. See the Mapping At-Risk Immigrant Communities and Access to Health Care project (Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative.) We hope that this project will help facilitate new research that examines these disparities even further. 

MM: Many of these disparities have continued in the distribution of and access to vaccines. As early as October 2020, health care practitioners and community advocates worried about vaccinating migrant and refugee communities across the country. Experts in bicultural health care began making recommendations on how to train contact tracers so they could help minoritized and immigrant communities, specifically those with limited English proficiency (see, for example, “Training Contact Tracers for Populations With Limited English Proficiency During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”). In January 2021,  Michael T. Osterholm, one of the leading experts of the pandemic, and a group of his colleagues urged authorities to consider the unique barriers to vaccine distribution that many refugee and migrant communities faced, namely limited access to technology, mistrust of institutions, language barriers, and fear of authorities (see “Critical Considerations for COVID-19 Vaccination of Refugees, Immigrants, and Migrants”). Many of these communities also became the target of widespread misinformation campaigns that created fear and confusion about vaccine efficacy and information sharing involved in the process. This has become a particularly challenging problem for immigrants who are living illegally in the United States who fear that they might be deported if they step forward and receive a vaccine. 

CC: All of us have been reeling from the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes during the global pandemic, especially the Atlanta Spa shooting. I felt a strong sense of anger and injustice in the reporting of the Atlanta Spa shooting as the authorities denied the crime being racially motivated. How does the Immigrants in Covid America fight back against blatant denial of racism in pandemic events obviously rooted in race? Can you speak on/interpret certain pandemic events and how the events are shaped by race? 

EL: Many of us know the long history of tying immigrants to disease in the U.S. Consider the excellent work by Alan Kraut, Nayan Shah, Howard Markel, and Alexandra Minna-Stern, for example. Speaking for myself, I was watching the news from abroad with increasing alarm in the winter of 2020. Old, familiar tropes of bat-eating Chinese people were making their way into the international news. Chinese were reportedly shunned and harassed in Australia, Europe, and Canada, Professor Jason Chang at the University of Connecticut started documenting these reports of “Yellow Peril” rhetoric and anti-Asian racism as part of the YELLOW PERIL TEACH-IN RESOURCES. The Immigrants in COVID America research team wanted to continue those efforts through our project. University of Minnesota graduate student Lei Zhang and I organized this work around key research questions: Why/how has anti-Asian xenophobia risen during COVID-19? What acts of discrimination, hate crimes, hate speech have occurred? And how does the rhetoric and action behind these acts build upon and further anti-Asian stereotypes, racism, xenophobia? How does anti-Asian xenophobia fit in the context of current U.S.-China relations? How is xenophobia different from and contributing to contemporary sinophobia?  As we report on our project website:

The false linkage between COVID-19 and the “uncivilized” Chinese habit of consuming wildlife animals was widespread online from the onset of the pandemic. People of Asian descent were blamed for carrying COVID-19 and spreading it in the U.S. These racial tropes circulating in the media and in public discourses drew upon and revitalized historically-entrenched narratives connecting Chinese people, communities, and spaces to disease. The “Yellow Peril” racial stereotype, which refers to the Western anxiety that Asians and Asian immigrants pose a threat of invasion, also helped to fuel anti-Asian racism. 

Exacerbating and promoting anti-Asian xenophobia has been Trump’s brazen use of racist terms such as “Chinese Virus” and his antagonistic China policy. Numerous conservative lawmakers have also used the pandemic to introduce China-related legislation, fueling a narrative that China and people of Chinese descent in the U.S. pose a threat to U.S. national security. Chinese students and researchers in the U.S. have been particularly targeted by new immigration policies. Sinophobia is likely to remain the driving force for anti-Asian xenophobia in the U.S., even after the pandemic fades away.  

MM: Our project also captures the long-term impact of the xenophobic rhetoric that the Trump administration used to scapegoat the AAPI community for the COVID-19 pandemic. We have documented the media outlets’ sudden and belated attention to acts of violence against the Asian-American community even though these episodes began happening almost immediately as Erika has mentioned. We have also chronicled the challenges that the Biden Administration has faced in trying to stop this wave of violence (see “Re-Imagining Safety, Belonging, and Justice in the Wake of Anti-Asian Violence”), particularly after February 2021, when it became apparent that many of the racist attacks targeted specifically elderly Asian Americans in the last several weeks (“A wave of violent attacks renews focus on anti-Asian racism”).

CC: What are some strategies you use to create an archive that emphasizes the undeniable connections of the history of race, immigration policy, unequal healthcare, labor, economy, and hate crimes? 

MM: One of the most powerful ways in which this history is evident is through the sheer length of the immigration policy section. While practitioners, scholars, and activists, the connection race, immigration policy, and the impact of a seismic event like the COVID-19 pandemic might be obvious, for many Americans it isn’t. Skimming through the articles to get a sense of how much the country’s immigration policy has changed since January 2020 offers a clear glimpse into how the pandemic became an excuse to bring the movement of immigrants, asylees, and refugees to a halt, to limit access to care and vaccines to some of the most vulnerable communities in the country, and to rethink the kinds of rights and protections that people who were born elsewhere have in the United States. The short introductions to each of the sections also bring the trends in each of them together and reveal the connections that exist across the board.

CC: In face of the constant erasure of America as an empire in different discourses, can you speak of the purpose of a historian and history as a discipline? What is the biggest drive/motivation behind the Immigrants in Covid America project?

MM: Our project adds a crucial dimension to our understanding of the pandemic as a social phenomenon that the existing economic and public health research cannot fully capture. Our project reveals the specific economic, cultural, and psychological repercussions on immigrants and refugees. It shows how what is happening to immigrant and refugee communities across the country is dramatically reshaping American society and many Americans’ perception of the United States as “a nation of immigrants.” Lastly, it shows the significant political and policy ramifications of the Trump administration’s travel bans, caps on refugee admissions, and exclusion of most immigrants from economic relief. Framing what is happening today within the longer history of xenophobia, exclusion, and social inequality that immigrant and refugee communities have experienced in the United States as well as the history of their responses to these challenges can offer important precedents for today’s community and public responses to the pandemic’s wide-ranging effects. 

CC: What have been some of the most rewarding things in the process of creating this project? What have been some of the most challenging things? 

EL: This has been an incredibly rewarding project to develop. As scholars committed to providing historical context to contemporary issues and crises, documenting the impact of the pandemic on immigrant and refugee communities was one way that we felt we could be useful. For me, specifically, tracking and analyzing the reports of rising anti-Asian racism and violence was necessary for my ongoing research and advocacy, as well as for the work of my graduate students. When we first began this research, we could not have anticipated how devastating a year it would become for Asian Americans. As of this writing, there have been over 6,600 anti-Asian hate incidents reported from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This research has made it into my students’ dissertation chapters. I have relied upon it for my own writing and to inform the numerous interviews and public talks I have given on the subject this past year, including testifying before Congress during its historic hearings on anti-Asian discrimination in March of 2021. 

What has been challenging has been keeping up with all of the news and reporting that has been produced while we also maintained our usual teaching and professional duties during the pandemic. We were able to make enormous strides during the summer of 2020 and launched the site in September. But our pace slowed down during the school year and we are now playing catch up. We have also not been able to publicize the project as much as we would have liked because we were so busy curating it. This is one of the reasons why we’re so thrilled to be the focus of this blog – thank you! 

CC: How can people help support your project? 

EL: This is a collaborative research project. We welcome suggestions for additional sources as well as additional topics and/or future project directions. There are prompts on the project homepage where users can provide feedback. We also hope that many more people will be able to use the project for their own teaching, research, and advocacy – and to let us know how they have used the project. There is much to process, learn, and share and we know that we are just beginning to understand the full impact of COVID-19 on all of our lives. 

MM: I echo Erika’s suggestions. We welcome feedback and contributions, but we also hope that this project encourages others to chronicle and preserve the stories of some of the most vulnerable communities in the United States. I also hope that our collaboration inspires other historians to use the skills and knowledge we have to help people make sense of the present.

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