I first visited Ellis Island when I was 15; it was my first time in New York, and I will always remember the ferry ride from Manhattan over to the little island in the harbour, with its imposing red brick buildings and sunny promenades. The island was overshadowed by the skyline of the city, then still dominated by the Twin Towers, which were to fall just two weeks later. Most people on my ferry didn’t disembark at Ellis Island, preferring to head straight to Liberty Island and its more famous landmark, but I insisted on dragging my family to the Ellis Island museum, which I assured them would be fascinating. I was right (as always!); it was. I returned in 2006, when I was 20, and found the Museum further improved, and perhaps because I was older, I got even more from my experience. Looking at the haunting photographs of rows of bewildered looking immigrants, clutching babies, luggage, each other; their expressions a mixture of fearful, excited, apprehensive and relieved, I was taken aback by the sheer bravery and tenacity of these people. How bad must it have been for them in their home countries, that they were prepared to sell up and risk everything they had to board a packed, dirty, disease ridden boat for days, to take them to another country that they had never set eyes upon, and yet that they hoped would offer them everything they had lacked in the land of their births? What did they think America would hold for them and their children? What were their feelings as they left their ships for the dry land of Ellis Island, herded into the lofty central waiting room, and inspected? The museum does a wonderful job at exploring the immigrant experience, and explaining why and how so many millions of people fled to the promised land of America in the 19th and 20th centuries, seeking the peace and prosperity their own countries could not offer them.
Since visiting the Tenement Museum and reading about the experience of immigrants living in Manhattan, I have wanted to find out more about the hordes of people who trooped through Ellis Island’s doors over a century ago. Not particularly wanting to brave the crowds in Battery Park to board a ferry to Ellis Island in the depths of winter, I instead picked up Vincent Cannato’s brilliant, informative and eye opening book. I loved it, and it gave me much to think about when it comes to immigration, identity, racism and nationality. It has been especially interesting to read alongside Little House on the Prairie, which I am currently slowly making my way through, as Vincent explains that many 19th century opponents of immigration were reluctant to allow ‘weaker’ races to populate their country, which they believed needed strong, Anglo Saxon stock like Charles and Caroline Ingalls in order to settle the wild lands that were previously Indian territory. However, as Cannato also raises, the irony of opposing immigration when actually all ‘Americans’ were immigrants, imposing on land that didn’t really belong to them in the first place, was unfortunately lost on the self righteous WASPS who believed that they were the true Americans, despite their own immigrant blood. Plus, today I started reading O, Pioneers!, a beautiful Willa Cather novel about immigrant pioneers in the Nebraska prairie lands, and all I have learned about immigration and the struggles many had to survive and prosper in America, is playing heavily on my mind as I read about the trials of the predominantly Swedish community who left their home country for a climate much harsher than they had at home.
Ellis Island was created as an immigrant processing centre in the 1890s, officially opening its doors in 1892. Previous to using this small island in New York’s harbour, the government had used premises on the Battery, and later, Castle Garden, an old fort, but these temporary measures were no longer fit for purpose. Some days, over 20,000 immigrants were flooding through New York Harbour, causing an administrative nightmare, and a lucrative trade in extortion and vice from hangers on, who were just waiting outside the gates of the immigration processing buildings to take advantage of tired and confused greenhorns, was raising the shackles of immigrant groups. The colossal, unprecedented amount of immigration from impoverished Europeans seeking a better life needed to be regulated, and immigrants given a safe place to land and get sleep, food, advice and support before they were unleashed onto the mean streets of New York. The American government, concerned by the tide of immigration, and pressured by a variety of groups to start weeding out these unwashed masses, decided to use Ellis Island as this place. It was created as a series of buildings designed to process, examine and sift ‘desirable’ from ‘undesirable’ immigrants before they were allowed to enter the country, and consisted of a vast complex of hospital buildings, dormitories, cafeterias, offices and gardens, designed to give immigrants a decent, yet official, welcome to the United States. As immigrants left their boats and trooped up the gangplanks to the main building, doctors were there, watching their every move. Anyone with an obvious defect was marked straight away for further inspection; later on, all immigrants would have a full medical inspection to root out those with infectious or chronic diseases that would prevent them from entry to the US, as well as those who were mentally defective. Anyone unable to work or support themselves would also be barred from entry, due to the risk of them becoming a ‘public charge’. Mentally or physically defective people were not welcome, and neither were those with loose morals; adulterers and bigamists were usually deported when their crimes were found out.
However, the vast majority of immigrants were allowed into the country; it was only in the 1920s that quotas were introduced, massively reducing the amount of European immigrants entering the United States. By the early 1900s, the percentage of foreign born Americans was close to 20%, and this ‘dilution’ of the stock of hardy pioneer settlers was an issue for many of the great and good of the day. Some advocated the cessation of immigration altogether, before the ‘American’ race died out; others recommended that anyone who lacked the physical and mental strength of their pioneer ancestors should be kept out. There was a fear that America was turning into the world’s rubbish heap, accepting the poor and dispossessed, who had failed to make a living in their native lands. These inferior specimens would bring America down, some thought, polluting the good blood stock of America like drops of ink added to a barrel of water, and producing future generations of weak, ineffectual degenerates. Ironically, all of those who were most outspoken against immigrants were children of immigrants themselves; so quickly had they become ‘Americans’, that they had forgotten their roots, and the opportunities their own families had benefited from in being allowed to enter a country whose borders their children now wanted to close. To pacify these increasingly loud protests, Congress passed laws to restrict immigration, but these laws were all open to interpretation by officials at Ellis Island, many of whom were compassionate and were reluctant to deport those who had given up everything to come to America. Faced with the tears and desperate pleas of people just trying to make a better life for themselves, laws and policies became impossible to enforce to the letter. America, land of liberty, its major port of immigration lit by the beacon of hope held in the hands of a statue that was the first thing most immigrants to America would see of their new country, was, in reality, open to the vast majority of the world’s citizens until America clamped down on its borders after WW1.
What I found most interesting about this book was not, as I suspected, the treatment of immigrants at Ellis Island and the conditions there; this wasn’t much mentioned, anyway. Instead, it was the arguments surrounding what made an ‘American’, and who had the right to become one. Having been here for just over four months, I find most people’s reactions to my very English accent amusing. The amount of people who have told me that they too are British is astounding. Their ancestors could have come over on the Mayflower, over 400 years ago, and yet still they insist that they are, really, British. I have also been regaled with tales of Irish Americans, whose great great grandparents came over from Ireland in the 19th century, and yet still, these fourth generation Americans insist that at heart they are Irish, despite never having set foot in their ‘native’ land. The legacy of immigration appears to be a country that, while fiercely patriotic (very much so, compared to the more humble Brits – not that I’m criticising – I LOVE how Americans take pride in their country and its achievements), is also very confused about its identity. What is an American, really, if every single American, apart from American Indians, is descended from someone who came from somewhere else? When do you stop being an immigrant and start being a native? What country do you belong to, if your parents are from India and yet you were born in America? How do you reconcile your ancestor’s cultures and religions and customs with those of your adopted country? And really, what can ever be described as ‘authentically American’, when American culture is built from the amalgamation of the cultures of those who came from other places to make it their own?
So many questions, and not many answers, but fascinating to ponder nonetheless. Being a temporary immigrant myself, I find that these issues are becoming more and more important to me, as I attempt to make a life for myself in a country that is so similar, and yet so fundamentally different from my own. Ellis Island has become the modern American’s Plymouth Rock, the place where a large amount of their histories began, and a place of celebration, where freedom and hope were given to the oppressed of the world. However, how can this be reconciled with the treatment of American Indians, who were herded forcibly from their lands to make way for these White European settlers? And is it right for a country made of immigrants to want to exclude others, such as Mexicans, when really, none of us choose where we are born, and all of us surely deserve the right to the best life we are able to make for ourselves? It’s a fraught issue, and still as pertinent today as it was in 1892. It’s an issue in England, too, of course, with the widening of the EU causing floods of Eastern Europeans to land on our shores. What does it mean to be English today? What does it mean to be American? In an increasingly mobile world, these definitions must become more fluid. But unlike the opponents of immigration in Ellis Island’s early years, I don’t think immigration causes nations to become diluted. I think it makes them richer. For where would America be without its German and Italian immigrants? It certainly wouldn’t be the world’s finest producer of pizza and hamburgers, that’s for sure.