Learning from Immigration's Past

Posted by Rachel Zisman on Tue, Jul 10, 2012 at 17:03 pm

I recently had the opportunity to attend a preview of a new exhibit, “Attachments: Faces and Stories from America’s Gates” at the National Archives.  Through samples of government forms and photos, the exhibit demonstrates immigrants’ and refugees’ “attachments” to both their new homes and their respective countries of origin, as well as the long and conflicted history of immigration.

Attending a preview of a new exhibit is exciting in itself, but as I was walking around the cool, dark, gallery, I was also reminded of my great-grandfather’s immigration story.  My great-grandfather Velvel – after whom I am named – fled what is now Ukraine during the Russian Revolution.  He and his brother narrowly escaped border patrols as they ran to Romania.  There, great-grandpa Velvel and his brother worked odd jobs like logging and translating in order to save money to immigrate to the U.S.  Sadly, my great-grandfather’s brother died before he reached the U.S.: as he was trying to make his way back into Ukraine to bring his fiancée to Romania, he was shot by the border patrol that he had evaded just months earlier.  Velvel continued to work in Romania.  Finally, after saving enough money, he made the trip to the U.S. alone. Once in the U.S., he settled in Brooklyn where he met my great-grandmother, another Ukrainian immigrant.  Together they built a family which included my grandmother and her two siblings.  Over time, Velvel became a factory owner.

I learned the details about this story when I was around 15 years old, and it made me very proud.  My one issue with this story was that my grandmother does not know and therefore cannot share many more details; according to her, such history was just not discussed much in the time period in which she grew up, making this exhibit even more special.  The exhibit filled in gaps about what my great-grandfather Velvel had experienced during his solitary journey: the waiting, the confinement in a detention center, the long lines, the exclusion based on race or religion, and the having to convince immigration officers that entering the U.S. was necessary to survive.

This exhibit struck a chord with me because it showed how far the immigration process has come in America and allowed me to discover connections and differences between the immigration system of the past and today’s immigration process.  It also showed me that the history of immigration is incredibly complex.  We can learn from the past and make today’s immigration system more practical and more transparent.  Where the immigration stories of the past were dark, today’s immigration stories have the potential to shine.

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