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Coming to America:Evansville students re-enact the immigrant saga

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GINA R. HEINE
May 24, 2008
— The line of immigrants carrying baskets and suitcases snaked around the building.

Citizens hanging out windows screamed at the newcomers to go home.


“Nobody wants you here!” they yelled.


Between the taunting citizens and barking inspectors, fear and trepidation splashed across the immigrants’ faces.


“Lice! Lice! Lice!” chanted one group of girls.


The 160 immigrants had just stepped from three ships (their classrooms), had gone through inspection (the middle school gym) and were in line to hear if their employment plans, character and health were good enough to stay in the United States.


Friday’s annual Ellis Island re-enactment day for the sixth grade students at J.C. McKenna Middle School gave students a taste of what life was like for many of their ancestors coming to America.


The event was the culmination of studying about immigration in several subjects. Students on Friday experienced how four out of 10 of their ancestors entered America, said Pam Haese, reading and language arts teacher.


“They have a very mean ingful experience,” she said. “They’ve done all this work and preparation—we’ve talked, we’ve read about all the different cultures that came here. This gives them the real feeling of what it’s like to stand in line and wonder if you’ll get in.”


Each student dressed and acted as an assigned character, and many were arranged into families. About 30 parent volunteers played inspectors.


Amber Schweigert waited in line for inspection with her family for the day. She played the role of Brigitte Becker, coming to America with her seven children and father from Hamburg, Germany. Wrapped in a white shawl over her shoulders and a scarf around her head, Schweigert carried her belongings in a bag and clutched a large basket containing her baby.


“It’s fun but kind of scary because you don’t know if you’re going to be deported,” she said.


Nearby, an inspector barked at an immigrant who wasn’t ready for inspection.


“Ear flaps need to be up, sir, up, I said!”


Moving through each station, the immigrants had to pass mental tests, such as putting together a puzzle; answer questions about their character, and complete health tests, such as blowing up a balloon to prove they wouldn’t be a “public charge.”


Grandpa’s tweed cap and green suit coat completed the look for Hunter Johnson, known Friday as Thomas Varsa, a farmer from Switzerland.


“It’s very lifelike and original,” he said.


Even more so when inspectors singled out an immigrant from line, said Johnson and his “uncle,” Parker Williams.


Johnson described to inspectors how he planned to work at a factory in California. An inspector didn’t like hearing one girl’s story about her lack of employment plans.


“We can’t have that here,” said the director, who escorted the girl to detention to again present her case for acceptance.


That’s all a part of the experience, Haese said.


“We want them to know how uncertain it was for those people,” she said. “They had no clue if they’d be welcome.”


At the health station, an inspector questioned Johnson about tendinitis in his knee, asking him to stand up and walk.


“I’ve worked all my life on the farm, and it never bothered me,” he said.


At the final station—clearance—Thompson received the stamp “Approved for Entry” on his passport.


“It feels good,” he said.



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