I examine the ways in which U.S. immigration policies that favor migrants with nationally desired skills have affected and reflected negotiations over national identities and belonging.
While researching my first book on Wernher von Braun’s team of German rocket specialists, I discovered an alliance among privileged groups in Huntsville, Alabama, which prompted me to ask broader questions about the history and impact of immigrants with “special skills” on the nation. I am currently exploring this history in order to determine whether or not similar alliances have occurred in other contexts and how these alliances are reflected in, or related to, immigration policies and surrounding debates.
In German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie: Making Sense of the Nazi Past during the Civil Rights Era, I examined post-Second World War international and national migration linked to “Big Science” projects and the effects of this migration on a small southern community, race relations in the U.S. South, and negotiations over U.S. history, memory, and identity during the Cold War. My main subjects were the German rocket specialists associated with Wernher von Braun and their families, who were brought to the United States immediately after World War II under the secret military operation Project Paperclip, most of whom moved to Huntsville, Alabama, in 1950. Led by von Braun, the German rocket team was later celebrated internationally for its contributions to the U.S. space program, Apollo. The book explores how local residents and the German families negotiated changing national narratives about the team in light of their former work for the Nazi regime. Based on oral histories I conducted with members of the German families, members of the African-American and Jewish communities, former co-workers, friends, and neighbors of the German families, I located these negotiations in the context of Huntsville’s dramatic transformation due to federal programs, heavy in-migration, and the Civil Rights Movement. By demonstrating how the histories of Nazism in Germany and Jim Crow in the United States became entangled in narratives about the past, this research challenges scholars to rethink the relationship of migration, national identity, science and technology, public history, and community-building in 20th century America.