Exhibition Illuminates Faces, Stories of American Immigrants

By Lea Terhune

Staff Writer

Generations of immigrants passing through entry points to the United States left details of their lives there that now reside in the U.S. National Archives. Its new exhibition in Washington, Attachments: Faces and Stories from America’s Gates, shares some of those photographic and documentary records and the often poignant stories they contain.

Among the personalities in the exhibition, “You meet a refugee from the Russian Revolution who was a Cossack trick horse rider with a Wild West show,” curator Bruce Bustard told a recent press conference. The Wild West show was French, and the gentleman who came to the United States in 1927 ultimately became an American citizen.

Many others were turned away or deported from the chief entry points, Ellis Island on the East Coast and Angel Island on the West Coast. Their stories are told here, too — tales of crimes or bureaucratic tangles that resulted in expulsion from the country. The worst phrase a hopeful immigrant could hear, having crossed the seas at great expense, was “likely to become a public charge.” Whether it was true or not, that judgment by an immigration panel spelled deportation.

Early in her academic career, University of Minnesota historian Ericka Lee, a descendant of Chinese immigrants, became interested in 20th-century immigration during the Asian exclusion era. This began in the late 19th century, when U.S. immigration laws barred entry for most Chinese, and later extended to Asians generally with the Immigration Act of 1924. Such laws made it very difficult, but not impossible, for Asians to immigrate to the United States.

While researching her family at the National Archives in San Bruno, California, Lee found something that no one in her family knew existed. It was a 1926 wedding photo of Lee’s grandparents Wong Lan Fong and Yee Shew Ning, part of the essential documentation they submitted at Angel Island to prove their suitability to enter the United States.

“Most elderly Chinese Americans are reluctant to talk about this period of history. It left a lot of scars, broke up a lot of families and forced a lot of people to come in circumventing the laws and falsifying identity documents,” Lee says. The records helped Lee learn about her own family and many others.

These are stories of “hardships and triumphs, false documents and fake IDs, immigrant perseverance and determination,” Lee says. Of the millions of immigrants from many countries, 33 are highlighted in the Attachments exhibition, her grandparents among them. After living through prejudice, raising seven children and contributing to their community, “my grandparents, who arrived in this country when the United States explicitly enforced a ‘no Chinese allowed’ policy, would be astounded to see their photographs here in this building along with our nation’s most sacred documents. It’s a long way to come.”

Applicants for citizenship attend a class about the United States in 1921.

The only living person whose story is in the exhibition, Michael Pupa, was 4 years old when the Nazis killed his parents and sister in Poland in 1942. He survived with an uncle, hiding in forests for two years, until World War II ended. He came to the United States, where he and his cousin were adopted by an American family in Cleveland, Ohio. Until the National Archives began compiling this exhibition, his wife and children knew little of his story.

“As soon as I was allowed to, I applied to become a citizen of this great melting pot,” Pupa says. He attended college, started a successful business, raised a family. “Only in America are so many opportunities available to all, regardless of race, creed, color, religion or national origin. I am truly grateful and proud to be a citizen of the United States,” he says.

The National Archives’ regional branches and online tools are rich resources for Americans and non-Americans interested in tracing their ancestors.

“Things are changing,” says Lee. “Patterns of global migration are constantly fluid now. We see many people my age and younger going back to the homelands that their grandparents left because of changes in the economy or to find their roots.”

According to Lee, “The United States is still an iconic place for immigrants, and there is still a backlog of people who want to come to this country.” She thinks the exhibition would be “fascinating” for prospective immigrants or those interested in U.S. history, “to know that some of the same questions and concerns and struggles with bureaucracy that they may be facing … have been with us for some time.”

The exhibition will run through September 3, 2012.

Learn more at Attachments:Faces and Stories from America’s Gates (PDF, 2MB) and at the U.S. National Archives website.

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