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Last Updated: Friday, 2 April, 2004, 13:15 GMT 14:15 UK
The new Americans
By Nick Fraser
Editor of Storyville, BBC Four

New immigrants to the US seem to be finding it harder than their predecessors to find a place in American society, BBC 4's New Americans series finds.

In New York's Ellis Island Museum, immigrants stare out of old photographs.

Ellis Island
Ellis Island was the port of entry for millions of immigrants
They are often wearing traditional costumes, clutching a stick awkwardly, or, if they came as a family, each other.

There is a distinctive look in their eyes, of fear, pride and hope. They have no idea where they are going, but they wish to get there.

And they will change their lives, totally, if not for themselves at least for their children.

For the moment, however, their faces merely invite one to ask what it must have been like to be one of those many millions, coming for the shtetls, slums and peasant hovels of Old Europe in order to make a new life in America.

One hundred years later, similar questions can be asked. What is like to be one of the millions of immigrants who come - by now from all over the world - to America? Is it easy to migrate? Can one really find a new life?

More global

Famously, the United States - along with Canada and Australia -defines itself as an immigrant's country.

11% of population is foreign-born
52% come from Latin America
25% from Asia
14% from Europe
Just over 11% of the US population is foreign-born, though if one takes account of illegal immigration - most of which comes from Mexico - the figure is somewhat higher.

In the 19th Century, when immigration was highest as a proportion of the population, and through most of the 20th Century, most new Americans came from Europe.

Since 1982, however, the situation has changed.

Now 52% come from Latin America, 25% from Asia and only 14% from Europe.

This is making America a more truly global society, though the preponderance of Latin Americans, concentrated in Florida and California, has begun to worry some commentators.

Slow accommodation

Traditionally, American society proved capable of absorbing these arrivals.

Ricky Ricardo, originally from Dominican Republic
Dominican Ricky Ricardo has made it to baseball's major league
They passed rapidly through the slums of Lower Manhattan or Boston, making the journey to suburbia in one or two generations.

As we're reminded in one film or memoir after another, the children of immigrants do well. After heroic efforts, they survive the melting pot.

It helps when they abandon their old languages and speak English - but many other things encourage the sense of Americanness.

Among these: the sense of individualism or of the family as an economic unit; a willingness to travel and adapt; and, least tangibly but perhaps most important, the sense that America remains the world's last best hope, capable of offering untold riches to those who truly wish to become American.

But the statistics tell a different story, namely that such accommodations are made more slowly and at some personal cost.


Immigrants earn less than "native Americans" (for the US Bureau of Census, the term now means people who were born in the US) and more of them are unemployed or poor.

If you fail here, you will return to your villages, broken
LA Dodgers coach
They have larger families and higher proportions of them cluster in places where people like them can be found.

Many of them find it harder to vanish into the American mainstream, and indeed do not try to do so.

This is not yet something to worry about, but it seems as if the old story of acceptance with which Americans comfort themselves is being replaced by something else, less obviously appealing or garlanded with success.

We saw this when we followed the lives of eight "new Americans".

"This is a test," the LA Dodgers coach tells Dominicans Jose Garcia and Ricky Ricardo.

"If you fail here, you will return to your villages, broken." Both survive, Ricky doing well to end as a major league pitcher for the Cleveland Indians.

But farmer turned vegetable picker Pedro Flores always hankers for Mexico and his family. He never comes to like America, which remains big and strange.

'No high hopes'

Even less successful are the Ogoni exiles, Israel and Ngoni Nwida who go from one less than desirable job to another.

Farmer turned vegetable picker Pedro Flores
Farmer turned vegetable picker Pedro Flores finds the US big and strange
Nigerians are easily confused with "native" Afro-Americans, and this means that no allowances are made for them.

Trained as a chemist, Israel ends up as a security guard in a department store.

"If an Ogoni man would want me to advise him, I would just ask him to think about America, not as a second heaven," he says. "Don't have high hopes."

It would appear that in America, once the preliminaries are over, immigrants are left to themselves.

The "melting pot" is not system of accommodation. It proves to be no more than a large, imperfectly maintained machine.

No-one is there to care whether the outcome of the experience is assimilation, rejection or wary accommodation. At the end of the road, no recognisable place of arrival awaits the migrants.

The New Americans was broadcast on BBC Four from Sunday, 4 April, at 2130 BST.


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