Saturday 3 September 2016

Island of Hope, Island of Tears

Image result for statue of liberty circa 1900

Statue of Liberty circa 1960, six years after Ellis Island closed, courtesy

As immigrants arrived in New York Harbor on ships from Europe or Asia, they caught their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of "the land of the free and the home of the brave".  In Liberty's shadow sat Ellis Island, where the newcomers would debark.  America represented a refuge for immigrants fleeing persecution, poverty or war.  But when they first arrived, they felt both hope and fear.  The immigration process could be quite daunting.

The sounds that greeted the recent arrivals at the immigration station were an assault to the senses.  "Various languages blended into a confusing roar, and the colorful clothing so many immigrants wore gave the appearance of a costume party.  Pushing and surging crowds, along with the sounds of babies crying, mothers wailing in search of missing children, and staff barking out orders to go this way or that, little of which produced any understanding, all prevailed." (

The smells were equally overwhelming.  "Looking down from the balcony surrounding the iron maze, one could describe a sea of people packed together.  The combination of food, sweat, vermin and the crowds of bodies gave the place, as one immigrant observed, "a foul odor."

The questions posed by the immigration officials were daunting, especially to someone who didn't speak English.  One wrong answer could be the difference between a yes and a no.  Questions raced through the immigrant's mind:  "Should a bribe be offered as was the custom in the Old World?"

The medical exam was nerve racking.   Parents make a valiant effort to hide their children's rashes, injuries, illnesses or strange behaviours.  Even so, some were still taken off the line, an X marked in chalk on the back of their coat. 

"The immigration machine moved along regardless of fear or hope, relentlessly spitting out those deemed unacceptable and pushing along those allowed entry."  Known for its efficiency, Ellis Island processed as many as 5,000 new arrivals each day, an endless queue filing past, endless paperwork being stamped, an endless list of names being entered into a ledger.

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