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Ellis Island: The Way Back to Freedom

What many immigrants first saw before in-processing at Ellis Island.

Spectacle – It was an exceedingly warm early September afternoon. The sun blazed above, lines were long, and what seemed like endless numbers of people waited eagerly to board the rotating ferries. The grandeur of New York City renders all public events – touristy or not – grand spectacles. After an hour, I boarded the ferry and steamed across the water to my destination. Situated in upper New York Bay stand two indelible images of America: The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Battery Park offers spectacular views of the bay and a faint outline of both landmarks in the distance, dominated of course by Lady Liberty. The jumping off point was Battery Park, an old fortress dating back to New Amsterdam (New York’s first namesake). It has since been converted to a park and tourist spot. Parks are one of many wonderful things about this goliath of a place. If there is one thing New York City has mastered, it is the well-manicured parks that sprinkle its neighborhoods. Undoubtedly, they are a necessary therapeutic respite from the neurosis of NYC’s urban stampede.

From the Manhattan side, views of Ellis Island and Liberty are panoramic. From the shoreline, Lady Liberty is a far-off spec of curiosity standing erect in the night sky. As I approached on the ferry, she transformed into an indomitable Greek Goddess capable of touching the heavens. The mind slowly processes what the eyes visualize, while feelings tingle like shooting pains in your legs after a long run. Without question, everyone experiences the scene differently: some are awe-struck, some cry, others tremble out of respect. For me, it was all of the above. Perhaps similar feelings spurred the ancients upon seeing the Pyramids at Giza for the first time.

Homage – The model for the Statue of Liberty was the famous painting “Liberty Leading the People” by Eugene Delacroix. Delacroix’s ferocious painting directly channels the fervor of the French Revolution and the march toward democracy that followed across the Western World. Lady Liberty is not a human statue expressing higher ideals, but a higher ideal embedded in human form. It reminded me of the mystical words of Carl Jung, “people do not have ideas, ideas have people.” Instead of holding the French Flag as in Delacroix’s painting, she is holding the “torch of truth” upwards to the sky, which expresses the theme of its namesake: “Liberty Enlightening the World.” In the other hand, she is holding a book of the law.

Ellis Island was the next stop. It took about half an hour or so to sail around the Statue of Liberty and file out of the boat among the masses. Like many places with so much history, Ellis Island serves as a temporal wormhole transporting the perceptive observer back in time. You can easily imagine yourself as one of the 12 million who passed through this station. The excitement, fear, and wonder these dreamers must have felt is palpable. It is worth noting that during the height of Ellis Island’s operations, roughly 5 thousand immigrants were processed through its walls every day.

From 1892 until 1954, Ellis Island was the main point of entry for newcomers. Immigrants were previously sent through Castle Garder Immigration Depot in Lower Manhattan until 1890 when border control became a federal matter. Ellis Island was a fully functional facility equipped with a hospital, makeshift lodgings, and transfer points by rail and boat. Medical screening was a critical function at Ellis to ensure that infectious disease did not spread into the United States. For an unfortunate minority denied entry to the United States for medical or other reasons, Ellis was an “Island of Tears.”

Conflict of Visions – The United States is frequently touted as a “nation of immigrants.” Ellis Island contradicts that notion. Certainly, America has had periodic waves of migrants come to its shores for centuries, some in large tidal waves and others in smaller swells. But the very idea that these migrants were processed and assimilated into the United States implies that a highly developed nation pre-existed their arrival. Indeed, America was a fully formed nation defined by its language – English, rule of law, and its cherished freedoms: religion, press, speech, and pursuit of happiness among others. These ideas reigned supreme for over two centuries in North America before the creation of Ellis Island, and indeed are the very reasons people came to our shores.

Teddy Roosevelt – the progressive of his day – was firm on rejecting the “nation of immigrants” paradigm. In a famous speech given to the Knights of Columbus well in advance of America’s 1921 Immigration Act that effectively closed the borders of the United States until 1965, the former President decried the coming of a “hyphenated America.” He warned:

“The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.”

Teddy feared an America torn asunder by ethnic tribalism, an unambiguous warning siren against the contrived myth known as diversity. Unfortunately, that is precisely what America has become, albeit today those divides are just micro tears on far more fractured world, and worse for the wear we are for it.

Humility: The trek to Ellis Island was a journey back into the past that also seemed to presage the future. I was overcome with tremendous pride and relished in the sense of strength and majesty these historical monuments project to the world. I was humbled by the civilization founded on freedom my ancestors passed down to me when they created this country. At the same time, the monuments of the past are often open wounds for the present, and that is the case here.

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