Near the Beltway and Beyond

By Joel F. Wurl, Former Head of Research Collections & Associate Director, IHRC
The evolving dynamics of immigration and its impact in this area are fascinating to observe. Taking a ride on the local bus system in Alexandria, Arlington, Falls Church, or Annandale is like shuttling between events at the United Nations.

I was tempted to label this a “Perspective from Inside the Beltway,? but this is going to be more about things “near? the beltway and beyond. As some readers will recall, I had worked for many years at the IHRC, through September 2006 when I moved to the Washington DC area and currently living in Northern Virginia.

The evolving dynamics of immigration and its impact in this area are fascinating to observe. Taking a ride on the local bus system in Alexandria, Arlington, Falls Church, or Annandale is like shuttling between events at the United Nations. The spectrum of languages, attire, appearances, and more is a potent demonstration that this region contains one of the nation’s most broadly diverse populations. Some excellent research and analysis of this has been done by George Washington University’s Marie Price and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Audrey Singer (see, for example, The World in a Zip Code). As they have noted, the extraordinary heterogeneity and dispersion of the foreign born here don’t fit neatly into patterns and norms of settlement, past or present.

What does, however, ring familiar is a counter response to the growing non-native population. Interestingly, the locus of intensity for this reaction isn’t to be found in Fairfax and Arlington Counties, with the greatest number and percentage of foreign born, but in neighboring Prince William County, on the outer ring of suburban DC. And intense it has been. In October of last year, the county board enacted measures aimed at curtailing illegal immigration, including a policy that directs police to check the residency status of any criminal suspects they believe might have entered the country unlawfully. Almost no day goes by without some news coverage pertaining to this decision, its after effects, and its varied reception by locals. (For a couple of the most recent items in the Washington Post, see:

As I sat down to make note of these circumstances, I received in the mail a little piece of analog comfort food to offset what sometimes feels like an unrelenting electronic diet – the latest publication catalog from the University of Illinois Press with history-related titles. Besides being thankfully reminded that knowledge still, indeed, can come from books and not just new media, I felt a little tinge of sadness to think, I believe accurately, that so many of the really exceptional-looking volumes listed will be read only by other specialists. How many of the newer Latino/a immigrants and those who live among them in Northern Virginia will read the new book Memories and Migrations, which has the promise of “introducing readers to the ways in which Latinas have shaped history?? The historical insights in a book like Making Lemonade out of Lemons, on Mexican American labor and leisure, could likely bring substance to ideas and attitudes as they continue to be shaped in places like Prince William County. Will such insights be discovered and learned in such places where the contest has been joined? It appears that the extraordinary new compendium American Dreaming, Global Realities, edited by Donna Gabaccia and Vicki Ruiz, has the true potential to help readers re-think immigration history, as the sub-title says, something that could be profoundly important in the way the general populace approaches today’s migration developments. Will this fresh approach to the subject be experienced and absorbed outside of the scholarly guild?

Probably the answers to these questions, as they long have been, are that ultimately the pure research and scholarship does wind its way down to the larger public, through the media, through adaptations in other forms directed at more general audiences, or through the gradual updating and reshaping of pre-collegiate education. But these forces are indirect and eventual. Of course, the disconnect between town and gown is nothing new, and I should add that few academic institutions I know of have worked harder to address this than the IHRC, with the very active engagement of staff, supporters, and advisory council members in historical documentation efforts, local community-driven research initiatives, and public history student projects, to name just a few.

I believe that people who make enforceable decisions about immigration do so with some notion of history. The past -- their sense of it -- is almost always invoked as a basis for their thinking. This happens inside the beltway, near the beltway, and beyond. Professional historians have a huge challenge to find better, more immediate ways to get their informed sensibilities directly into the minds of these people. It’s a challenge worth persistent response and attention – and maybe even some rethinking.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by herna130 published on April 29, 2008 7:29 PM.

The 2008 U.S. Presidential Candidates’ Stances On the Reform of Immigration Law was the previous entry in this blog.

Postdoctoral Scholars Blog: "Time and Immigration" is the next entry in this blog.

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