U.S. National Institutes of Health

Immigrant Health, Health Services, and History

Description: Ideas about health and medicine have been an important part of U.S. immigration policies and attitudes toward immigration. Students explore how such ideas developed and how they have changed over time.

The module has five classes in which students examine the connections between immigration history, medical history, and public health. Students also examine the factors that have affected immigrants’ health and access to health services. Each class includes a brief introduction, a list of readings and sources, and discussion questions. Information about the author of the module, suggested uses, and academic objectives is also available online at About the Module.

Class 1: Immigration and Health in the Ellis Island Era

The first class focuses on the era of the New Immigration (1890–1924), when 20 million people came to the United States. Students examine federal policies of medical inspection of immigrants on arrival, and the health conditions awaiting immigrants in their new homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces.

Class 2: Health Care for Immigrant Neighbors

The second class features the work of the Henry Street Visiting Nurse Service in New York City in the early 20th century. Students learn how the visiting nurses promoted the social as well as the physical welfare of the immigrant communities that they served.

Class 3: Medical Scapegoating and Discrimination

This class examines the history of the stereotyping of particular immigrant groups as disease carriers. Students study how Chinese, Mexican, and Haitian immigrants and migrants were affected by medical stigmatization, and how they fought against discrimination and advocated for more effective public health practices.

Class 4: Access and Empowerment

This class looks at four examples of health services that were created by immigrants themselves in the 20th century. Students consider how these services by and for immigrants have not only provided care to the underserved, but also have given their own communities more power to shape their own destinies.

Class 5: Immigrant Health Issues Today

The last class explores some of the major issues and challenges in immigrant health today, including insurance coverage, refugee health, and the “immigrant paradox” (when immigrants arrive they are healthier than the rest of the population, but their health status declines the longer they are in the United States).