In the U.S. immigrating to the land of the free always has been a well-desired notion for people around the world, whether fleeing from unsafe conditions or wanting a more successful life of opportunity. Americans within the borders of the country have feared and embraced it, with regulations being legislated and enforced or constantly argued over among political higher-ups, just as we continue seeing today.
No matter one’s stance, immigrants have been woven into the fabric of American life since France gifted us the Statue of Liberty inscribed with Emma Lazarus’ famed sonnet, “The New Colossus,” welcoming newcomers to Ellis Island. Cape Fear Museum is hosting the “Becoming American” film series, which plunges into the varying facets of life for an immigrant in America.
Cape Fear Museum originally applied for the “Becoming American” film series in 2017, as a grant from City Lore funded through the National Endowment for the Humanities. The six films shown include “New York & The Jewish Americans,” “Welcome to Shelbyville,” “The New Americans,” “Destination America,” “My American Girls,” and “The Search for General Tso.” Each film displays a uniquely different aspect to the history of immigration in the United States, dating back to the 1800s. Eighty-five people attended the first screening of “New York & The Jewish Americans.” It showcases a wave of European groups (including Greeks, Italians, Syrians, and Jews), which totaled about 40 million immigrants, entering the country through Ellis Island. Scholars, including Dr. Jan Davidson of Cape Fear Museum and Dr. Candice Bredbenner of UNCW, introduce the film and host a discussion thereafter. They hope to create thoughtful conversation about how immigration has shaped America.
“The film series is designed to encourage reflection about the meaning of immigration in American society, and the roles that immigrants have played in the history of the country,” Dr. Davidson says.
After the first screening, attendees talked about personal immigration stories of their families, many of whose ancestors arrived through Ellis Island. Thus the series is not just a history lesson but an experience to put into perspective one’s family lineage.
Each film paints a rich portrayal of the immigration experience, diving deep into particular families’ challenges, hardships and breakthroughs. Take, for instance, “The New Americans,” which will screen on February 17. The audience is put into the shoes of the Nwidors, a Nigerian family who fled from their homeland to spend years in a refugee camp in the African country of Benin. They eventually make their way to Chicago, where they spend a few weeks in low-income housing and are grateful for a dry place to sleep and even McDonald’s hamburgers. Mr. and Mrs. Nwidor struggle with low-paying hotel industry jobs, yet manage to evoke hope through moments of despair.
Immigrants always have made a meaningful contribution to the workforce in the United States. According to the Department of Labor, 17.1 percent of the labor force in 2017 came from foreigners. The labor participation rate for the foreign-born is 66 percent opposed to 62.2 percent for native-born. “Destination America,” showing February 24, chronicles a vital part immigrants have played in the labor force.
“Why might immigrants choose the U.S. over some other country that also offers employment opportunities?” Dr. Bredbenner asks. “That decision could depend on many different factors, such as geographical proximity, family connections in the country, desire for greater political or religious freedoms, or protection and educational opportunities.”
Immigrants also come to America for opportunities in the workforce and economy—to make a better life for family.
However, allegiance to their homeland still is present in many cases, and stems from a desire to preserve the identity of their nation. On March 3 “My American Girls” addresses various generations of immigrant life and how it is changing. Dr. Bredbenner says it delves into how folks bring their cultural identities with them into the nation.
“They have memories of place, experiences, a language that tie them to their native countries,” Dr. Bredbenner explains. “In contrast the cultural identities and social interactions of their children, who come to the U.S. as minors (for example, the country’s ‘Dreamers’) or who are born in the U.S., are shaped by their immersion in American society.”
“My American Girls” focuses on the family of Sandra and Bautista Ortiz from the Dominican Republic. The parents eventually want to retire to the homeland, while their daughters have plans to stay back independently in America.
Completing the series will be “The Search of General Tso,” which examines how the 1880s Chinese Exclusion Act caused 1 percent of the U.S. population to be pushed out of the labor market. Consequently, it resulted in the growing popularity of American-Chinese restaurants. Historians, chefs, writers, and others discuss how the act illustrates bigotry.
“Most historians agree the act was fueled by prejudice, racism and fear,” Dr. Davidson tells. Along with the Naturalization Act of 1924, it aimed to regulate the amount of immigrants coming in out of fear. Even though the Chinese made up a small percent, Americans feared the group due to differences, like not being Christian and eating different foods. The thought they could not and would not assimilate was a driving force in its enactment.
Wilmington, of course, is not without its own diversity. It was a major port in Colonial America in the 18th century, and was established by a combination of migrants, immigrants and enslaved African-Americans.“New Hanover County’s immigrant population is diverse, with people coming from Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America—which comprises the largest growing group,” Dr. Davidson says. “Wilmington is also home to a small refugee community, a number of whom are from the persecuted Karen minority of Myanmar.”
Wilmington is one small part of America’s many communities affected by it. The “Becoming American” film series lays out its importance over the last 200 years and showcases its impact today.