The New American study guide Objective

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Living Voices The New American study guide

The New American study guide

Objective: Through the viewing of and participation in the live presentation of The New American, as well as the use of this packet for pre and post performance exploration, students will gain a greater understanding of the process of immigration and assimilation in the early twentieth century, then will be able to draw parallels between immigration to the United States and other historical events.

Story synopsis

Bridget Fitzgerald is born and raised in County Clare, Ireland in the early twentieth century. Like people in many countries around the world, her family faces many hardships brought on by economic and political forces beyond their control. Bridget’s father finds it increasingly difficult to make enough money to pay the landlord’s rent on their farm. Hoping for a little extra income, Father sends Bridget’s older brother, Denny, to Dublin to work in the factories. Things are looking better until Denny disappears with no trace. Father is forced to send his youngest child, Bridget, to America where they have a distant cousin who will take her in and allow her to work in his home. They hope that she’ll be able to make a great deal of money and save the farm and family.

In 1910, Bridget travels across the Atlantic in the steerage compartment of a steamship with hundreds of other hopeful immigrants. She makes friends with another young Irish girl named Katie, who helps Bridget survive the cramped and difficult journey at sea. Katie is traveling to America to marry a man named Johnny whom she only knows through a photograph and some letters.
Upon arrival at Ellis Island, Bridget is assaulted with a barrage of tests and questions, as well as the noise and crowds of thousands of people from around the world. She worries about failing the inspection, which would mean she could be sent back to Ireland, and disaster for her and her family. Katie is marked for suspicion for an eye disease, but a friendly neighbor advises her to hide the letter “E” that has been drawn on her shawl and continue through. Both Bridget and Katie are approved for entry into the United States. Katie, however, may not leave Ellis Island until she is married to Johnny, as young women are not allowed off the island with a man not related to them. Bridget is permitted to leave when her cousin picks her up.
Once in New York’s Lower East Side, Bridget learns that her cousin is really the janitor in a tenement building, where she is expected to work for no pay. Knowing that she will never be able to earn the money needed to save her father and the farm this way, Bridget strikes out into the streets where she discovers people of all nationalities, languages, and cultures living in small neighborhoods. At the Irish Aid Society, she is invited to live in their home for young women, and she finds Katie working there. The matron helps Bridget get a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where she is one of the only Irish girls among mostly Italian and Jewish workers. To her surprise, she makes friends with an English girl named Rose: this friendship would never have happened in Ireland. Finally, she is earning enough money to send home, which helps her father bring the farm out of debt.
One afternoon, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory catches fire and Bridget narrowly escapes being a victim in one of America’s worst factory disasters. Afterwards, with the help of Katie and Johnny, Bridget gets a new job in the household of a rich Irish politician, sending even more money home than she had been from the factory.
Bridget’s father sends word that her brother Denny was killed by British troops during an incident in Dublin. He is regarded as a political hero. Father then informs Bridget that he intends to give the farm to their cousin Patrick and that she should consider staying in America. Bridget realizes that there is no life for her in Ireland any more, and decides to become a citizen of the United States. Although a part of her still thinks of Ireland, she realizes that she now belongs with the people from around the world who have come together to create a new way of life in a new world. She knows that she is an American.

Chronology: Changes in Immigration and Naturalization Laws


1790 - Naturalization is authorized for "free white persons" who have resided in the United States for at least two years and swear loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. The racial requirement would remain on the federal books until 1952, although naturalization was opened to certain Asian nationalities in the 1940s.

1798 - The Alien and Sedition Acts authorize the President to deport any foreigner deemed to be dangerous and make it a crime to speak, write, or publish anything "of a false, scandalous and malicious nature" about the President or Congress. An amended Naturalization Act imposes a 14-year residency requirement for prospective citizens; in 1802, Congress would reduce the waiting period to five years, a provision that remains in effect today.

1882 - The Chinese Exclusion Act suspends immigration by Chinese laborers for ten years; the measure would be extended and tightened in 1892 and a permanent ban enacted in 1902. This marks the first time the United States has restricted immigration on the basis of race or national origin.

1891 - To the list of undesirables ineligible for immigration, Congress adds polygamists, "persons suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease," and those convicted of "a misdemeanor involving moral turpitude."

1906 - The first language requirement is adopted for naturalization: ability to speak and understand English.

1907-8 - Under a so-called "Gentlemen's Agreement," the United States promises not to ban Japanese immigration in exchange for Japan's pledge not to issue passports to Japanese laborers for travel to the continental United States (although they remain welcome to become agricultural workers in Hawaii). By a separate executive order, President Theodore Roosevelt prohibits secondary migration by Japanese from Hawaii to the mainland.

1917 - Over President Wilson's veto, Congress enacts a literacy requirement for all new immigrants: ability to read 40 words in some language. Most significant in limiting the flow of newcomers, it designates Asia as a "barred zone" (excepting Japan and the Philippines) from which immigration will be prohibited.

1921 - A new form of immigration restriction is born: the national-origins quota system. Admissions from each European country will be limited to 3% of each foreign-born nationality in the 1910 census. The effect is to favor Northern Europeans at the expense of Southern and Eastern Europeans. Immigration from Western Hemisphere nations remains unrestricted; most Asians will continue to face exclusion.

1924 - Restrictionists' decisive stroke, the Johnson-Reed Act, embodies the principle of preserving America's "racial" composition. Immigration quotas will be based on the ethnic makeup of the U.S. population as a whole in 1920. The new national-origins quota system is even more discriminatory than the 1921 version. "America must be kept American," says President Coolidge as he signs the bill into law. Another provision bans all immigration by persons "ineligible to citizenship"--primarily affecting the Japanese.

1943 - To appease a wartime ally, a token quota (105) is created for Chinese immigration. Yet unlike white immigrants, whose quotas depend on country of residence, all persons of "Chinese race" will be counted under the Chinese quota regardless of where they reside.

1950 - The Internal Security Act, enacted over President Truman's veto, bars admission to any foreigner who might engage in activities "which would be prejudicial to the public interest, or would endanger the welfare or safety of the United States." It excludes or permits deportation of noncitizens who belong to the U.S. Communist Party or whose future activities might be "subversive to the national security."

1952 - The McCarran-Walter Act retains the national-origins quota system and "internal security" restrictions, despite Truman's opposition. For the first time, however, Congress sets aside minimum annual quotas for all countries, opening the door to numerous nationalities previously kept out on racial grounds. Naturalization now requires ability to read and write, as well as speak and understand, English.

1965 - The United States finally eliminates racial criteria from its immigration laws. Each country, regardless of ethnicity, will receive an annual quota of 20,000, under a ceiling of 170,000. Up to 120,000 may immigrate from Western Hemisphere nations, which are still not subject to country quotas (an exception Congress would eliminate in 1976).

1986 - The Immigration Reform and Control Act gives amnesty to approximately three million undocumented residents. For the first time, the law punishes employers who hire persons who are here illegally. The aim of employer sanctions is to make it difficult for the undocumented to find employment. The law has a side effect: employment discrimination against those who look or sound "foreign."

1990 - The Immigration Act of 1990, raises the limit for legal immigration to 700,000 people a year.

1996 - A persistent recession in the U.S. in the early 90's, among other reasons, leads to calls for new restrictions on immigration. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act is passed, toughening border enforcement, closing opportunities for undocumented immigrants to adjust their status, and making it more difficult to gain asylum. The law greatly expands the grounds for deporting even long-resident immigrants. It strips immigrants of many due process rights, and their access to the courts. New income requirements are established for sponsors of legal immigrants. In the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, Congress makes citizenship a condition of eligibility for public benefits for most immigrants.

1997 - A new Congress mitigates some of the overly harsh restrictions passed by the previous Congress. In the Balanced Budget Agreement with the President, some public benefits are restored for some elderly and disabled immigrants who had been receiving them prior to the 1996 changes. With the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, Congress restores an opportunity for certain war refugees living in legal limbo to become permanent residents.

1998 - Congress continues to mitigate some of the nativist provisions passed by the Congress in 1996 by partially restoring access to public benefits for additional groups of legal immigrants. The Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act resolves the legal limbo status of certain Haitian refugees, and allows them to become permanent U.S. residents. Responding to the pleas of powerful employer groups, Congress passes the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act, which significantly raises the number of skilled temporary foreign workers U.S. employers are allowed to bring to the U.S.

2000 - Congress continues to move incrementally in a pro-immigrant direction, passing the compromise Legal Immigration Family Equity Act, which creates a narrow window for immigrants with family or employer sponsors to adjust to legal status in the U.S.; resolves the legal limbo of certain immigrants denied legalization in the mid-1980’s; and provides temporary visas for certain family-sponsored immigrants waiting for their green cards. For the second time in three years, Congress significantly raises the ceiling for skilled temporary workers. The Child Citizenship Act grants automatic U.S. citizenship to foreign-born adopted children. The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act provides visas for trafficking and crime victims. Congress modifies the Naturalization law to allow severely disabled immigrants to become citizens even if they cannot understand the Oath of Allegiance.


Ellis Cose, A Nation of Strangers: Prejudice, Politics, and the Populating of America (New York: Morrow, 1992);

James Crawford, Hold Your Tongue: Bilingualism and the Politics of "English Only" (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1992);
Roger Daniels, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1950 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988);
John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, 2d ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988);
Maldwyn Allen Jones, American Immigration, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

Facts on Refugees and Asylees


What's the difference between a refugee and an asylee?

Refugees and asylees are people seeking protection in the U.S. on the grounds that they fear persecution in their homeland. A refugee applies for protection while outside the United States. An asylee first comes to the United States and, once here, applies for protection. Refugees generally apply in refugee camps or at designated processing sites outside their home countries. In some instances, refugees may apply for protection within their home countries, such as in the Former Soviet Union, Cuba, and Vietnam. If accepted as a refugee, the person is sent to the U.S. and receives assistance through the "refugee resettlement program."

How many refugees does the U.S. accept?

The United States accepts a limited number of refugees each year. This number is determined by the President in consultation with Congress. In fiscal year 2002, for example, 70,000 refugees were permitted to come to the U.S. The total number of refugees admitted is divided among different regions of the world. In fiscal year 2002, the regions and the numbers of admissions were:

  • Africa–22,000

  • Eastern Europe–9,000

  • Former Soviet Union–17,000

  • East Asia–4,000

  • Near East/South Asia–15,000

  • Latin America and the Caribbean–3,000

How does someone gain refugee status?

To qualify for refugee resettlement in the U.S., a person must come from a country designated by the Department of State. The person must meet the definition of a refugee by proving that she has a well-founded fear of persecution. The refugee applicant must prove that this fear is based on the possibility of persecution because of her race, religion, membership in a social group, political opinion, or national origin. In addition, a refugee must fit into one of a set of "priority" categories, which factor in degree of risk to the refugee's life, membership in certain groups of special concern to the U.S., and existence of family members in the U.S.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), makes a determination on refugee status on a case by case basis. If the INS decides the individual meets the refugee criteria, the refugee must undergo an additional screening for possible medical or security reasons that might make him or her inadmissible to the U.S.

After refugees have been in the U.S. for one year, they are eligible to become permanent residents. There is no limit to the number of refugees who may become permanent residents each year.

What benefits do refugees receive?

The circumstances under which refugees leave their country are different from those of other immigrants. Often they are fleeing persecution without the luxury of bringing personal possessions or preparing themselves for life in a new culture. Recognizing this fact, the federal government provides transitional resettlement assistance to newly arrived refugees.

In the first 90 days, private voluntary agencies contract with the Department of State to provide for a refugee's food, housing, employment, medical care, counseling, and other services to help the refugee make the transition to economic self-sufficiency. Certain refugees are entitled to a special program of Refugee Cash and Medical Assistance, provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and administered by the state in which the refugee resides.

While most newly arriving immigrants are barred from receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid, and Food Stamps until they become citizens, refugees are exempt from this ban for the first seven years after they gain refugee status.

How does someone become an asylee?

Like a refugee, an asylum applicant must also prove that he has a "well-founded fear of persecution" based on his race, religion, membership in a social group, political opinion, or national origin. Once granted asylum, the person is called an "asylee."

Individuals inside the U.S. may apply for asylum in one of two ways. The application may be submitted "affirmatively" by mailing it to an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Service Center. The INS will schedule an interview with a specially-trained asylum officer in one of eight asylum offices in the U.S. A "defensive" application is submitted as a way to prevent deportation when an asylum seeker is in removal proceedings. In defensive cases, an Immigration Judge decides the application. In either instance, the application must be submitted within one year of entry to the U.S., or the person will be found automatically ineligible. Exceptions are allowed for extraordinary circumstances. While there is no limit on the number of people who may apply for asylum, of those applicants who apply based on a claim of persecution for coercive family planning reasons, only 1,000 per year may be granted. In Fiscal Year 2001, more than 20,600 asylum applications were approved.

Like refugees, asylum seekers must, in addition to proving a well-founded fear of persecution, be screened to ensure they are not inadmissible to the U.S. for some reason, such as criminal activity. Applicants for asylum must submit fingerprints, and they are subject to a check of all appropriate records and information databases, including FBI, INS, and State Department databases.

In recent years, the concept of what constitutes a social group that may be targeted for persecution has evolved. For example, some women seeking asylum have based their claims on domestic violence. In this case, the civil authorities of the country have been unwilling to intervene in life-threatening situations, leaving a woman totally at the mercy of her abuser unless she flees for her life. Sexual orientation has also served as the basis for successful asylum claims in some cases. In either case, it is not only direct persecution by the government that serves as the basis for an asylum claim, but also the unwillingness of the government to protect someone who is in serious danger.

Like refugees, asylees may apply for permanent resident status after one year. Unlike refugees, only 10,000 asylees each year are allowed to become permanent residents. Reform of the asylum system in 1995 resulted in a streamlined process that has resulted in more timely decisions. Since the reforms were instituted, more than 10,000 persons each year have been granted asylum. This fact, coupled with the annual adjustment of status limit, has created a backlog of applications for permanent residence. In March of 2001, there were more than 57,000 applications in the backlog. This means that someone granted asylum today will have to wait approximately six years before becoming a permanent resident (and then another five years before gaining eligibility for citizenship).

Individuals seeking to apply for asylum upon arriving at a U.S. airport or other port of entry are subject to an expedited removal system. If an asylum seeker arrives with false or no documents, he must establish a fear of persecution in an on-the-spot interview before an immigration officer, or face immediate deportation. An immigration judge may review a negative decision within seven days. Of the persons identified for expedited removal, only about 1% get beyond the on-the-spot interview and see an asylum officer. Of those, about 88% convince asylum officers that they have a credible fear of persecution and are given the chance to make their case to an Immigration Judge. This expedited removal system is responsible for the removal of approximately one half of all persons removed from the U.S.

Presidential Determination No. 2002-04, Memorandum for the Secretary of State, November 21, 2001
U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 1999 (Washington, DC: 1998).
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Office of Policy and Planning, Fiscal Year 2001 Monthly Statistical Report, October 31, 2001 <>.
Center for Human Rights and International Justice, University of California, Hastings College of Law, Report on the First Three Years of Implementation of Expedited Removal, May 2000.
Reed Russell, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, LLP, Memorandum to Members of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Immigration Regarding Elimination of the Cap on Adjustment of Status for Asylees Under Section 209(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, April 25, 2001.
Ellis Island History

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