My mother was an immigrant, and ever since coming to New York a few years ago, I have wanted to visit Ellis Island. Now I have been there twice within the past year—last June and then on a bitterly cold day during Christmas week. My mother was luckier than most immigrants. Having grown up in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, she had a job waiting for her—teaching French to a young girl in a family near Rockville, Md. Nor did she arrive by way of Ellis Island; Baltimore was her port of entry. But Ellis Island was by far the biggest port of entry in those years, and visiting it gave me a sense of what she would have faced as a stranger in a new country—a young woman whose English was rudimentary at best, far from everything that had been familiar to her.
In lower Manhattan, I boarded the ferry that transports sightseers to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Even before pulling away, from the top deck I could see the four cupolas atop the restored main building of what is now called the Ellis Island Immigration Museum; beyond was the New Jersey shore. When I arrived on the June visit and entered the building, hundreds of school children on field trips were rushing about, making lots of noise that ricocheted off the tiled floors and walls. At first I was dismayed. But then it occurred to me that high noise levels and commotion were probably representative of the situation that would have prevailed in the earlier part of the 1900’s, when it was not unusual for several thousand men, women and children to be processed on a single day in the great registry hall on the second floor.
The registry hall is an immense two-story chamber with a balcony around three sides. A few of the original benches are still there, on which newly arrived immigrants who had crossed the Atlantic in steerage class waited to begin the inspection process. Wealthier passengers would have been processed right on their ships and then allowed to go directly to their destinations in the United States. Moving through various rooms off the registry hall, I visited some of the areas where U.S. Public Health Service inspectors examined new arrivals to check for diseases that were grounds for deportation. If they found indications of a disease, with a piece of chalk they marked the shoulder or lapel of the person’s clothing with a letter—an E for eyes, for example.
One photograph from 1910 shows a doctor using a button hook to raise a man’s eyelid for signs of trachoma. Behind him stands a poorly dressed woman with three small children waiting to submit to the same procedure. From that room immigrants moved to others for further kinds of examination. Remarkably, only 3 percent of the hundreds of thousands who passed through Ellis Island until it closed in the 1950’s were deported.
What a painfully different situation we see today. Whereas the museum is meant as a reminder of a country that has traditionally welcomed strangers, we have now become a nation that not only tries to keep them away, but—through the immigration act of 1996—one that often imprisons and then deports many of them. A friend who ministers at the immigrant detention center in Elizabeth, N.J.—only a few miles southwest of Ellis Island—has told me that some 300 asylum seekers are held in that one facility. They have committed no crimes; they are simply men and women who came here to escape from persecution and in hopes of a life free of grinding poverty. Instead, because in fleeing they arrived without acceptable documents, they have been greeted with incarceration.
How cruelly ironic seem those lines of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Tired and poor, thousands in detention centers across the United States have to do their yearning behind bars.