Help Wanted? Immigration and Work

  1. Century of Immigration
  2. Promise & Prejudice
  3. Between Two Worlds: Identity & Acculturation
  4. Help Wanted? Immigration and Work
  5. Family & Community
  6. Immigration and Popular Culture
  7. Becoming American Home

Thursday, November 1st 6-8pm at Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library Meeting Rooms A-C

Film: Destination America, Episode 1, The Golden Door

Destination America, Episode 1, The Golden DoorWritten and Produced by Stephen Stept and David Grubin 2005
New York Magazine Best Nonfiction Television Program
Columbus International Film & Video Festival Winner

Running time: 54 minutes

In this first episode from the acclaimed four-part series on immigration, historians Donna Gabaccia and Janet Nolan, among others, provide a historical context for America’s longstanding and sometimes conflicted relationship with immigrant labor.

Reflecting that “once, there was no such thing as an illegal immigrant. If you could get here, you could stay,” Prof. Gabaccia notes that, from the start of U.S. history, immigrants were recognized as necessary to the country’s economic growth. The film focuses on three groups’ histories of immigration to America, looking at their reasons for emigrating, where they settled, and what kinds of work they contributed.

In the 1800s, arable land in Norway was running out as its’ population exploded. A descendant of Norwegian immigrants who still farms his family’s land in Wisconsin quotes his great great grandfather, “The farm we lived on was only good for raising two things – sheep and stones.” The first group of families desperate for a livelihood arrived in America in 1825. As word spread, hundreds, then thousands more, began to emigrate, most to farm land across the Midwest.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the potato crop in Ireland failed due to blight. As half the Irish population depended on this one crop as its main source of protein, widespread famine resulted. English landlords evicted starving families who could no longer work and pay rent – over 65,000 families between 1845 and 1862 lost their homes. Masses of them migrated to the U.S., and helped build America’s railroads, sewer and water systems, and – women as well as men — provided the labor for American factories and industries.

The film intercuts these examples with the ongoing story of a Mexican worker, Manuel, who travels periodically to Chicago to make enough money to feed his family in their economically depressed Mexican village. Historian Alexandra Stern recounts the history of Mexican workers to America; in the 1920s, American industrialists sent agents to recruit labor for American steel mills and factories. Millions of Mexican workers settled and raised families in the U.S. But during the Depression, the government expelled and deported 500,000 of them, many of them by then middle-class businessmen and homeowners.

Humanities Themes

The Immigrant Experience: The process of migration has been central to human experience for millennia. What drives people to pick up their lives and migrate to a different place? How do they choose where they will migrate to? And what impact does the process of migration have on the individual and on communities?

Immigrants and Work: Work is a central defining aspect of most human lives. Immigration is bound up with labor as Americans have long sought to attract immigrants to settle and farm unclaimed land, work in industrial settings, or do low-paying service or agricultural work.

Immigrants and Race: Race stands as a central reality in the American experience. Immigrants to America have come from many different races. The reception of immigrants into American society has often depended on race. At the same time, racial categories of immigrants shift over time.

Immigrants and Nativism: Americans are often torn between, on the one hand, seeing their country as a “nation of immigrants” that welcomes newcomers and, on the other hand, being concerned about the impact of immigrants on the nation’s culture and economy. Various strains of nativism have consistently run through the nation’s history.

Immigrants and Assimilation: Throughout history, Americans have often wondered whether new immigrant groups would “assimilate” into the broader American culture. Immigrants adapt themselves to their new homeland, but at the same time they also transform what it means to be an American. Immigration highlights the protean nature of American culture.