Why now?

Our museum seeks to document how people come together to make change. Today, we see a chance to capture history in motion. At the National Museum of American History, we're committed to documenting history as it happens —from political campaigns to Emmy winners to new inventions. Over the past year, we have expanded our existing collections and exhibitions focused on the history of democracy, migration, and immigration with new resources that explore how life in the United States has changed during COVID-19" and how the cascading crises of 2020 had a disproportionate impact on our nation's Black, Latino/a, Native, and Asian-American communities. In keeping with this longstanding practice, we are now documenting an unexpected political force on our national landscape—undocumented immigrant organizing.

For more than 20 years, undocumented immigrants (people without legal status to reside in the United States) have been organizing to protect their communities and secure basic rights. The undocumented movement they created taps into a long tradition in U.S. history: people creating change without citizenship or the right to vote. In this way, undocumented organizing echoes three other revolutionary moments in our nation’s history that transformed the nature of citizenship: emancipation, the woman suffrage movement, and the civil rights movement. In each case, Americans—without the right to vote—successfully placed legislation on the floor of the U.S. Congress. The Smithsonian collected these moments as they occurred, and we are collecting history as it is happening right now.

To chronicle this historic moment, we interviewed five undocumented organizers from across the United States to gain insight into history as it is happening. These organizers’ testimonies offer a snapshot into a complex movement that goes well beyond DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and DREAMers.

In their video testimonials, these organizers urge us to see democracy in new ways. They ask us to question our assumptions and reimagine the fundamentals of our political system, our national identity, and even citizenship itself. We invite you to explore the complexity of this movement with those who are making history.

About the "Undocumented Organizing Collecting Initiative"

The Undocumented Organizing Collecting Initiative is a three-year project chronicling a signature moment in our nation’s history where people without citizenship or the right to vote are changing the nation. The initiative collects objects and oral histories from six sites representing this multi-vocal, multifaceted movement: Southern California; North Carolina; Washington, D.C.; Nebraska; Chicago; and Mexico City. As a community-driven movement, undocumented organizing reflects the power of place in creatively harnessing resources. Some places have a long history of immigrant organizing and others do not. Some are urban; others are rural. Some are well-known for immigrant rights, and others are unexpected. Our intent as public historians is to lay a good foundation for understanding the nuances of undocumented organizing for future generations. Here is more information on the project, and our ethical guidelines.