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An Immigrant's Tale

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"I believe in America. America has made my fortune."
Bonasera, The Godfather

An Immigrant's Tale is the story of an immigrant, or their whole family, or a refugee, coping with life in a new nation with a different culture. A common setting is late 19th or early 20th century America, with a heavy emphasis on The American Dream, but the trope works in any time and country. The happy version is a Rags to Riches story, where the immigrant arrives with only their clothes, but then through hard work and entrepreneurial risk-taking, they make a lot of money. The grittier, realistic version, especially in modern works, is to depict the immigrant family's struggles with poverty and discrimination.

A recent theme is the plight of illegal aliens and migrant workers from Mexico working in America, and Africans and Middle Eastern refugees and migrants in Europe.

Typically includes overcoming a Language Barrier, sometimes in a fun or funny way, instances of the Funny Foreigner, and Generational Sagas.


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  • "Budweiser — Born the Hard Way" is a commercial telling the tale of how Adolphus Busch left his native Germany to travel to America, facing hardship and anti-immigration prejudice to make his fortune, all the while carrying a notebook detailing his plans for the beer he wants to manufacture. Upon surviving a steamboat fire on the Mississippi and trekking into St. Louis, Missouri, he shares his musings with another German national at a local bar -- Eberhart Anheuser.

  • Played for laughs in one of the British "Compare the Meerkat" adverts, in which Alexsandr and Sergei's identical ancestors are forced to flee the Kalahari due to the terrible Grub famine, and endure a perilous sea journey before arriving in Russia.

    Anime & Manga 
  • Manga Yonin Shosei ("The Four Students Manga") by Kiyama Yoshitaka aka "Henry Kiyama" is a semi-autobiographical manga spanning about two decades, following four Japanese working students who arrive in San Francisco in 1904. Unlike modern manga, it emulated American Newspaper Comics of the time in its art style and left-to-right orientation. It was first published in San Francisco in 1931, then rediscovered in 1980, translated to English, and republished in 1999 as The Four Immigrants Manga.
  • Voltes V: When Ippei Mine was a young boy, his family immigrated from Japan to America. Unable to make a living for themselves, the Mine family were unable to afford housing and forced to sleep on the streets. One night, a pack of wolves began surrounding the family as they were asleep, so Ippei's mother emptied the gunpowder from her rifle to cause an explosion and kill them off. Unfortunately, the explosion consumed her in the process. Ippei's father died from an unspecificed illness, leaving Ippei orphaned. From a young age, Ippei had to learn to fend for himself. He started doing odd jobs everywhere, but excelled at horse-riding, becoming a famous rodeo star and winning several awards with his horse, Eiffel. Because of his prowess as an equestrian, Ippei was selectednote  to become one of the five pilots of Voltes V. Ippei misremembered the aforementioned incident as his mother abandoning him and was bitter about it for years, until one day he found a newspaper that recorded the incident and realized that his mother was trying to save him. He was overcome with tears upon this realization.

  • Statue of Liberty: Implied. She was specifically placed on a harbor in Bedloe's Island to serve as a grandiose and reassuring greeting to any immigrant seeking a better life in the US.

    Comic Books 
  • The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, particularly the first, second, and tenth chapters, tells the story of how Scrooge McDuck immigrated from Scotland to America to (very successfully) make his fortune.
  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan tells the story of an immigrant in a foreign country, foreign for the reader and the protagonist and how he is helped by both other immigrants from different countries and the locals until he manages to bring back his family. Notable in using a fantastical visual spectacle to metaphorically capture the emotion rather than literal details of migrant experience.

    Fan Works 
  • Rose goes through this many times over in the Doctor Who fic Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, after discovering that due to time disparities, each jump can take decades. Every time she jumps to a new universe, she has to spend years learning the language, the culture, etc.
  • In Patterns of the Past, Olesya explains that both of her parents emigrated from China to the United States for the California Gold Rush, and gave birth to her nine years later. However, shortly after her birth, they died, her mother of the flu and her father in a mining accident.
  • In Pokémon Crossing, two of the main characters (Holly and Kidd) are immigrants from another region (Unova and Kalos, respectively). In the beginning of the story, they already moved into the Hoenn region, but the story follows them getting used to Hoennian culture.

    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Brooklyn: Eilis ultimately does find a happy and fulfilling new life in America but only after tremendous homesickness and being seriously tempted to return to Ireland for good. The film does not pull any punches about the grimmer side of this trope either whether it be immigrants who never truly find a home in their new country or the family and friends left behind who essentially lose someone for good.
  • Vito Corleone's subplot in The Godfather Part II, which details how he fled his Italian hometown (due to being targeted for a hit by a mob boss who eliminated his family, when he was still a kid) to live in New York City, eventually growing up to start his own family and becoming a career criminal himself.
  • Moscow on the Hudson, featuring Robin Williams as a defector from the Soviet Union making a new life in America
  • Ruggles of Red Gap doesn't start out as this, as Ruggles comes to America against his will—he's an English valet who was gambled away to an American tourist—but he becomes enchanted by the people in the little town of Red Gap, and by the new country he's in, rattling off the Gettysburg Address from memory to the delight of the townsfolk.
  • Far and Away, about two Irish people migrating to America.
  • Gangs of New York
  • The Al Pacino version of Scarface (1983)
  • The Italian, directed by Thomas H. Ince, was a 1915 film that followed the life of an Italian immigrant - and this was during the latter part of the major immigration to the US in the late 19th/early 20th century.
  • The Immigrant, a short film by Charlie Chaplin featuring his Tramp character.
  • Also a later movie, also called The Immigrant released in 2013, featuring Marion Cotillard as a young Polish woman forced to turn to prostitution to rescue her sister from quarantine on Ellis Island.
  • Avalon touches elements of this in the grandfather's flashbacks.
  • How the West Was Won begins in the early 1800s with a group of settlers from the east encountering the hazards of the wilderness, both natural and human, and traces their families through to the later part of the century.
  • My Name is Khan follows the journey of an Asperger's-suffering Indian Muslim immigrant in the post-9/11 sociopolitical landscape.
  • The Namesake is about Indian immigrants to the U.S. and their son's journey to accept his culture.
  • Amreeka is about two Palestinian immigrants, a mother and son.
  • America America by Elia Kazan, all about Kazan's uncle, an ethnic Greek in Turkey, and his desperate struggle to get out of Turkey and make it to America.
  • Hold Back the Dawn is about a European gigolo who scams an American schoolteacher into a Citizenship Marriage, only to (of course) fall for her for real.
  • The Molly Maguires deals with Irish immigrant coal miners in 1870s Pennsylvania.
  • El Norte is about as dark as this trope gets, as two Guatemalans fleeing persecution find their way across the border to the United States, only to find tragedy and suffering and dashed hopes.
  • Icebox is a 2018 drama about a young boy from Honduras who tries to get into America illegally to escape a violent gang. Before he can make it to his uncle's, he gets caught by immigration and spends the rest of the film trying to seek asylum.
  • Sallah Shabati: A Jew from a remote community has to adjust to live in modern Israel — or, more accurately, get everyone else to adjust to him. This was made in 1964, so it was recent or current history at the time.
  • Spanglish is the story of Flor, a Mexican immigrant who gets a job as a housekeeper for a mildly dysfunctional upper-class family in order to support herself and her daughter.
  • Stand Clear of the Closing Doors is about a struggling, undocumented family's search for their autistic son after he runs away.
  • Official Secrets: Katharine Gun's husband Yasar is a Kurdish refugee working in a coffee shop and trying to get permanent residency in the UK. He's nearly deported two-thirds of the way through the film, seemingly to punish Katharine for leaking a memo embarrassing to the Bush and Blair governments.
  • Coneheads is more like an "accidental" version of this trope, where the immigrants are literally aliens from outer space assimilating into American society.
  • You Don't Mess with the Zohan: A Badass Israeli commando fakes his death and moves to New York City to become a hairdresser.
  • Umrika: As far as Ramakant and his village know, Udai has emigrated to the US and lives a good life there. The entire film is a prelude to Ramakant's migration to America, and the film ends with him on a shipping container arranged by smugglers.

  • The Emigrants tetrology by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, about a Swedish family's migration from Småland to Minnesota in the mid-1800s.
  • Franz Kafka's Amerika tells the story of a young man's journey to a twisted version of America where the Statue of Liberty holds a sword.
  • The Fortunate Pilgrim by Mario Puzo. Yes, that Mario Puzo. He actually bemoaned how people preferred a gangster story full of violence than the pains and joys of a single mother raising her kids alone in a foreign country.
  • The Yelnats' backstory in Holes has Stanley's great-great-grandfather Elya immigrate from Latvia to the United States more than a century before the main story.
  • In Island Beneath The Sea most of the main characters are Black Haitians, white Frenchmen and Spaniards. After the Haitian revolution they migrate to Louisiana, which soon ends up joining the U.S.
  • In the Midst of Winter
    • Evelyn's backstory: Her mother leaves her children (Evelyn and her two brothers) in the care of Evelyn's grandmother in their village in Guatemala. After the gang one of her brothers belongs to kills him and the other brother and rape Evelyn, leaving her severely injured, the grandmother sends her off with a coyote to cross the border so she can go live with her mother.
    • After the 1973 military coup in Chile and her brother's disappearance, Lucia is forced to take refuge in the Venezuelan embassy until she can travel to Venezuela. She falls in love with a fellow exile and moves with him to Canada until she realizes he is no prize. She relocates to Vancouver and eventually moves back to Chile.
  • The Joy Luck Club is a collection of stories about first- and second-generation Chinese-American immigrants.
  • The Jungle has a startlingly bleak and cynical take on this trope, as it centers on a Lithuanian immigrant named Jurgis Rudkus who comes to the United States to seek new opportunities, only to find himself in a dead-end job at a Chicago meat packing plant. Among other things, he also loses his wife and child. He then Took a Level in Cynic and becomes a socialist.
  • My Ántonia, about various settlers in the 19th century American Midwest, including the Ántonia of the title who is Czech. There are other Slavic or Scandinavian nations present in the neighbourhood.
  • America Is Not the Heart, about Filipino immigrants in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • The Kite Runner, half of which is about an Afghan father-and-son duo who migrate to the States and settle in the San Francisco Bay Area; the son (and narrator), Amir, finishes college and marries a fellow Afghani there, and later on he also brings Sohrab, his nephew, to live with him and his wife.
  • Tis is the second of author Frank McCourt's memoirs and is about McCourt's immigration to the United States from Ireland (although he was already a U.S. citizen, having been born in New York to Irish immigrant parents who moved the family back to Ireland when he was a very young child).
  • Shanghai Girls is about May and Pearl Chin, sisters from Shanghai that are forced to immigrate to the U.S. with their husbands when their father loses all his money and World War II starts. May has a child in America, Joy, who is raised as Pearl's child. The sequel, Dreams of Joy, is about Joy's return to China to find her roots.
  • Girl In Translation, by Jean Kwok, is about a girl named Kimberly and her mother immigrating to Brooklyn sometime in The '80s.
  • Vita, by Melania Mazzucco, tells the story of two Italian immigrants arriving in New York as children in the early 20th century.
  • Middlesex is one, albeit extremely unconventional, about immigrants Eleutherios "Lefty" and his wife Desdemona Stephanides (who are also brother and sister) who immigrate to Detroit from Turkey.
  • Marsbound starts out this way, with Carmen Dula and her family moving to Mars and struggling to fit in with the community there, but it takes an abrupt left turn partway through.
  • American Girls Collection:
    • Kirsten's series, set in 1854, about a Swedish immigrant family adapting to Minnesota in the pioneer times.
    • Rebecca, a Russian Jew whose family immigrated to Manhattan. Set in 1914.
  • The Crocodile God is an Urban Fantasy about a Filipino-Australian man called Haik who gets shipwrecked in California, where the Fil-American Mirasol finds him and takes him in. Turns out he's actually a Filipino sea-god who's been growing steadily more isolated after the Spanish conquest, and Mirasol as his reincarnated wife is now The Only Believer he has left. About a week after his stay in the hospital, his lack of records sends ICE officers out to deport him to the Philippines.
  • Two of the short stories at the beginning of The Overstory are this. The first short story starts out by telling the story of Jorgen Hoel, a new Norwegian immigrant to America, and follows his descendants. The second story follows Ma Sih Hsuin/Winston Ma as an immigrant from China to the US, and then follows his daughters.
  • You Look Different in Real Life: Felix's family were undocumented for many years and worked hard to become legal citizens.
  • Zara Hossain Is Here: Zara's family are Pakistani Muslim immigrants living in the US trying to secure them permanent residence. She and they face a lot of Islamophobia/racism, especially as they're in Texas among conservative neighbors. This is a main theme of the book.
  • Miracle Creek: In 2004 or so, Pak Yoo moved his wife Young and his daughter Meh-hee-yah, renamed Mary, from Seoul to Baltimore so Mary could have a better education, even though neither wanted to go, while Pak stayed behind to work. In Baltimore, Young worked long hours at a store that was in such a bad area, Mary wasn't allowed to visit her at work. Meanwhile, Mary felt lost and confused in middle school, with only a rudimentary grasp of English and almost no understanding of American customs. The more English she learned, the more of her classmates' insults she understood, and she had a hard time making friends.
  • When The Angels Left The Old Country: A Jewish angel and demon emigrate from a tiny Polish town to New York, facing many of the same challenges that human immigrants faced. The author's note at the end describes it as the "classic Yiddish novel, but queer".
  • Angel Child, Dragon Child: Ut, a young Vietnamese girl, immigrates with her family to the United States and copes with attending a new school.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Halfway Across the Galaxy and Turn Left metaphorically captures the migrant experience of kids by portraying an alien family settling on Earth as refugees. It deals with the everyday such as the kids settling into school, and their fear that the regime they've escaped will catch up with them (in the TV version it does, differing from the book it is based on.
  • The Master of None episode "Parents" has flashbacks to both Dev's and Brian's parents immigration stories (from India and China respectively).
  • My Name Is Earl features several flashbacks and side-stories involving Catalina's immigration from Guadelatucky to Camden. It's mostly Played for Laughs...or sometimes Fridge Horror (usually when her Big, Screwed-Up Family is mentioned).
  • Comes up from time to time with contestants on Chopped. One memorable one is Chef Hiep Le from Season 18, who mentioned that during or shortly after The Vietnam War, when she was 18, her mother placed her (and a younger sibling) on a raft, and directed them to go find their father in the US.

  • Franco De Vita: The theme of several early songs, such as "Extranjero", "Louis" and "Latino". Respectively:
    • "Extranjero" (Foreigner) tells about a Venezuelan worker who has to leave his homeland to make a living in another country while also securing a good future to his children (who stay in Venezuela). But during his life outside, he learns the hard way that the rights, the protection and the sovereignty he had before aren't present while he's a foreigner.
    • "Louis" tells about a man who traveled to another country to build up a music career... but first he has to make a living and find stability, so he works as a cabbie. Even then, he continues dreaming that he'll become a singer one day, performing in concerts and entertaining the public. As the years pass, he grows older and never manages to even start his career, so all the time he spent outside his home country was just to survive.
    • "Latino" (Hispanic) tells about a Venezuelan man who, tired of living in an underdeveloped country rife with corruption and misery, travels to New York. His life goes From Bad to Worse, as he not only faces difficulties due to Language Barrier (he doesn't speak English), but also deliberate Misplaced Nationalism (he isn't seen as "American" because the demonym is only reserved there for people born in "America" the country, not the continent) and social prejudices. He married a woman in order to apply for a residence visa, but then she divorced him and the police arrested him. Even having a green card didn't save him from deportation.
  • "America" by Neil Diamond
  • Regina Spektor's "Rockland County" and "8th Floor"
  • "In Your Hands" by Charlie Winston
  • No Gringo by Vienna Teng is one of these with a twist: it's set in a world where America is somewhere people are desperate to leave, not to come.
  • "Thousands Are Sailing" by The Pogues has an immigrant from 1980s Ireland meet the ghost of an immigrant from 100 years earlier.
  • "Concrete Jungle" is a great hip-hop/reggae example by Diafrix.
  • "Paddy's Lamentation," a Civil War-era Irish folk song about an Irishman leaving Ireland due to the famine only to be forced to fight in the American Civil War, losing his leg. It was featured in Gangs of New York.
  • Tres veces mojado (Three times a wetback), by the Mexican band Los Tigres del Norte, tells the story of a man who left El Salvador, and illegally crossed the borders of Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States.
  • "Imaginary Fairground", a Cantonese song (with English subtitles), is about a family from Hong Kong immigrating to the United Kingdom, released in 2023 coinciding with the emigration wave from Hong Kong in the early 2020s.

  • Hasan Minhaj's stand-up special/one-man show Homecoming King discusses his parents' journey to America and his life in an immigrant family.
  • Lenny Henry's Have You Seen This Man?, in which he tells of his parents and sister moving from Jamaica to the British Midlands.

  • Kristina fran Duvemala is a musical by ex-ABBA members Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, an adaptation of Moberg's novels.

    Video Games 
  • Grand Theft Auto IV stars Niko, a new immigrant to America.
  • Dragon Age II is the story of Hawke, a regular everyperson whose family fled Ferelden during the Blight and ended up in Kirkwall with no money, no status, and almost no connections or relatives. Over the next seven years, Hawke makes a name for themselves and is eventually the Champion of Kirkwall... before being cast right back down to refugee status by fate.

    Western Animation 
  • The DuckTales (1987) episode "Once Upon a Dime" tells the story of how being tipped an American dime while shining shoes in his native Scotland, inspired Scrooge McDuck to cross the Atlantic and make his fortune in America.
  • Ed, Edd n Eddy: Rolf and his family, who are immigrants from an unspecified European country, which is intentionally kept vague to allow for Funny Foreigner jokes (though one episode implies it has a connection of some sort with Norway). Much of Rolf's character is based around the Culture Clash he's experiencing while trying to adapt to life in the U.S, and one Day in the Limelight episode shows how much he misses his first home. The character is loosely based on the childhood of series creator David Antonucci, who's parents were Italian immigrants to Canada.
  • Parodied with Dr. Doofenshmirtz's backstory of leaving Drusselstein in Phineas and Ferb.
    Dr. Doofenshmirtz: I was heading to a golden land of opportunity. A land with a pioneering spirit which welcomed misfits, like me. But, I ended up in America, instead.
  • "The Great American Melting Pot" from Schoolhouse Rock! is a recount of the mass immigration to the United States during the 19th century, and how heritages are ultimately a blend among Americans.

    Real Life 
  • If you come from a family of (recent) immigrants, this happens at every family reunion. Or just every time your parents get drunk reminiscing. Or if you are a first-generation immigrant yourself.


Video Example(s):


We Get the Job Done

This Hamilton Mixtap song expands on the famous line from the play to tell the story of those who live in the shadows, who fear the next ICE raid, and who have built the US economy.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / AnImmigrantsTale

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