Attachments tells the stories of 31 men, women, and children who found themselves at the gateways to America between 1880 and the end of World War II. Their stories are told through original documents and photographs that were “attached” to government forms, and draw from a few of the millions of immigration case files at the National Archives.
The exhibition explores both physical and emotional “attachments” – the attachment of immigrants to family and community, and the attachment of Americans to their beliefs about immigrants and citizenship.
The Attachments exhibition is divided into three sections: Entering, Leaving, and Staying.
Entering examines the exciting, strange, and frightening experience of entering a new country. For most immigrants to the United States, the actual entry processes at immigration arrival points lasted only a few hours or days. Still, the stakes were high. For those escaping religious or political persecution, the outcome of their immigration application could mean life or death. Some individuals took desperate measures including forging visas; others created false families or crossed borders illegally. Many appealed detention or fought deportation in the courts.
Leaving shares the stories of immigrants who – willingly and unwillingly- left the United States. While some immigrants came for only a short time and left by choice; others wanted to enter, but were turned away. For some immigrants who successfully entered, the ultimate punishment for a criminal past — which may have included financial trouble, a disability, or “moral turpitude” — was deportation.
The final section, Staying, examines what it meant to leave behind the familiar and stay in America. While not all immigrants chose to stay, for those who did, making a life in a new land presented both opportunities and challenges. Feelings of loss and nostalgia over “the old country” balanced the thrill of greater freedom and the chance to begin again. American ideals of inclusion, democracy, and individual rights faced off against the reality of prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping. For many, these struggles were resolved, in part, by taking the steps to become a U.S. citizen. For others, it was enough to live as an alien in America for the rest of their lives.
For help with migration records and a greater understanding of immigrating to America, try Discovering Immigrant Ancestors, my guide on genealogy research for European immigrant ancestors.