National Archives Opens Gates to Immigration Exhibition June 15, 2012
Press Release · Thursday, May 3, 2012

Attachments: Exhibition overview

Washington, DC…On Friday, June 15, 2012, the National Archives will unveil a new exhibition, “Attachments: Faces and Stories from America’s Gates”. Located in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, “Attachments” is free and open to the public, and runs through September 4, 2012.

“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.

“Attachments” 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.

In “Attachments,” visitors will discover dramatic tales of joy and disappointment, opportunity and discrimination, deceit and honesty. They will learn about these stories through original documents and images, and will have the opportunity to look into the eyes of the immigrants through large photomural portraits. Entering the gallery, they will pass by a large (8 x 26 feet) panoramic photograph of Angel Island, the immigration station in San Francisco Bay which was sometimes called “The Ellis Island of the West.”

People you will meet in “Attachments” include:

  • A woman from Michigan, married to a Chinese man, who learns upon trying to leave the country that under U.S. law at the time, when she married her husband, she lost her U.S. citizenship and “became Chinese” for immigration purposes.

  • A Hawaiian boy taken by his parents to Japan who returns years later wanting to work in California. However, U.S. immigration officers doubt his story and detain him at Angel Island, despite his Hawaiian birth certificate.

  • A Chinese woman who sails for the U.S. in 1927 with her new husband. The couple devises strategies that allow them to successfully negotiate prejudices about Chinese women trying to enter the country for immoral purposes. Seventy years later, their granddaughter discovers their wedding photograph in her grandmother’s immigration file.

  • A young Polish child - whose parents are murdered by the Nazis - hides for two years in the Polish forests with an uncle and cousin. The boy survives the war but then spends six years in four refugee camps. Finally, in 1951, he is able to leave Germany and comes with his cousin to the U.S. He ends up in Cleveland, Ohio, where he is placed in a foster family, and becomes a U.S. citizen.

The Archives Shop will also feature an exhibition catalog and new Genealogy Tool kit in conjunction with “Attachments: Faces and Stories from America’s Gates.” All Archives Shop proceeds support the National Archives Experience and educational programming at the National Archives.

The National Archives is located on the National Mall on Constitution Avenue at 9th Street, NW. Spring/summer hours are 10 AM – 7 PM (March 15-Labor Day).

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For more information on or to obtain images of items included in the exhibition, call the National Archives Public Affairs staff at 202-357-5300.

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