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New exhibit looks inside the building where three families gained a foothold in the U.S.

At a time when questions are swirling around U.S. immigration policy, a new exhibit at New York City’s Tenement Museum looks at the effects of immigration on a personal level. The exhibit, “Under One Roof,” tells the stories of three families -- Polish, Puerto Rican and Chinese -- who moved to the city's Lower East Side neighborhood after World War II. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • ANNIE POLLAND, TENEMENT MUSEUM:

    See, visitors love to do that because that sound they hadn't heard in many years–

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Nine years of being VP of Programs and Education at New York City's Tenement Museum has given Annie Polland an appreciation for the tiny details that bring the immigrant experience to life.

  • ANNIE POLLAND:

    This apartment is almost like three time capsules rolled into one. We realized that we could be able to in one exhibit tell at once a migration story and immigration story and a refugee story. What we're also trying to do is show the impact of immigration laws on the lives of families.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The three families profiled lived in this building at 103 Orchard Street at different points from the 1950s, and 1960s through the early 2000s. When you walk into the dining room, you meet Kalman and Rivka Epstein, Jewish refugees from Poland who escaped the Holocaust.

  • ANNIE POLLAND:

    These are pictures of Kalman and Rivka who come in 1947.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    They met in a displaced persons camp in Frankfurt, Germany. In December 1945, President Harry Truman signed an executive order that allowed them and 23,000 other refugees to come to the U.S.

    They had two daughters Bella and Bluma, who lived in this recreated bedroom. Bella Epstein recounts her favorite song growing up in the 1950s and learning about American culture through pop music. Her voice is embedded in this record player.

    BELLA EPSTEIN (VOICE IN RECORD PLAYER): I had gotten my mother to buy me a record – "Oh please stay by me Diana" That was the song. It was played more in my house than I think anywhere else in the world. That was it. That made me American.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    In the next stop, you meet Ramonita Rivera Saez, who migrated from Puerto Rico to New York with her two sons Jose and Andy Velez. Saez found work in a garment factory and joined the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.

  • ANNIE POLLAND:

    This picture of Ramonita, this picture was used in part as the basis for this exhibit.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    She was part of the wave of more than a half million Puerto Ricans who migrated to New York in the 1940s and 1950s.

    The museum meticulously recreated this 1960s living room to look like hers. But it's the plastic-covered couch, which keeps it free of stains and spills, that spurs memories for visitors of many different backgrounds.

  • ANNIE POLLAND:

    They could be Americans of Chinese descent, Irish descent, Italian descent, they could be African-American. But if you lived in the United States in the 60s and 70s, you had a relative, if not your own home, that had that plastic covered furniture.

  • ANNIE POLLAND:

    This is the Wong sisters' bedroom. It's recreated to be about the 1970s.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The Wong family immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong in 1965. Like Saez, Mrs. Wong — who didn't want to share her first name — worked in the garment factories in the neighborhood, which the museum highlights in a recreated sewing factory. Short video interviews with Wong and others in the garment industry are projected throughout the room.

  • MRS. WONG, TRANSLATED FROM CANTONESE, COURTESY TENEMENT MUSEUM:

    So I was learning and finally could sew myself. After that, I made three dollars and I was so happy! I think it was just a few cents per piece.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The same year the Wong family came to the U.S in 1965, the "Immigration and Nationality Act" was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The legislation brought sweeping changes to the immigration system by eliminating race-based national-origin quotas set in the 1920s which favored northern and western European countries. It also prioritized the reunification of families.

  • MRS. WONG:

    After I got my citizenship, I immediately applied to sponsor my little brother here.

  • ANNIE POLLAND:

    Being able to frame stories through the lens of family allows people, gives people the room to talk about immigration and talk about refugees and talk about migrants in a way that's more open than when we talk about it with regard to policy or laws. Or you know, rhetoric that is repeated over and over again. What we try to do is offer a space for people to approach these topics with fresh eyes.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    After the exhibit was finished last summer, the members of the three families were some of the first visitors. The exhibit is now on permanent display at the Tenement Museum.

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