The last month has been a hard one on the world. I cried and sobbed with Rachel Maddow as she struggled to read the news of the crying immigrant children separated from their families at the US Border. Coming fresh from a visit to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the desperation and guilt played even more on my conscience, as I ran the audio clip of the crying children on loop.
Glad that I stopped by
Recently I was in New York City for a couple of days. It was a touristy visit and I was nothing but overwhelmed by the glamour of the Big Apple! The city offered history, culture, and architecture so incredible, that I was awestruck! Even after planning out all our major sightseeing plans, we had a couple of hours at hand and decided to check out Ellis Island. I am thankful that we decided to stop by at the tiny island that shaped millions of lives back in the day. It gave me a much better understanding of the refugee crisis and the heart-wrenching challenges of migrant populations.
The Island of Refuge
Ellis Island, currently a historic destination, served as an immigration station for six decades from 1892 to 1954. About 40% of current US citizens are related to someone who passed the doors of the famed island.
During this wave of US immigration, many people came to the country fleeing world war, holocaust, and political oppression. Most of the immigrants arrived after surviving arduous ship journeys, diseases, harsh climate and came with little children and elderly alike.
The immigration process, followed back then, is documented beautifully and in great detail in the museum. The audio guide walked me through stories of joy and despair of many hopeful souls, who ventured into the ‘Land of the Free’ with a dream in their weary eyes. It is overwhelming to imagine that the building, few times the size of a Costco or a big hospital, processed as many as 10,000 people in one day. The immigrants, termed “aliens” in some official documents, were subjected to physical and mental examination before they were granted entry into the country. Even toddlers were given puzzles to solve to ensure they were mentally capable. While it is true that most people got a chance to get in, many were not so fortunate. As per reports 2% (of 12 million people) were not allowed within the country. Statistically, this number might seem low. But, it meant that about 240,000 families were broken, or separated at the shores of the United States of America back then.
The Doors to a New World
Up the “Great Hall”, where preliminary medical examinations took place, we found a staircase that led up to three doors: one was for entering the country, one was for getting detained, and the other was for getting deported back to the homeland. There are many stories where some family members passed through the door to the country, while another was shown the door of deportation. And just like that, loved ones were separated never to see each other again. Immigrants who failed health examination were detained in hospitals for mental or physical treatment. These facilities were nothing more than glorified prisons. The occupants were given the bare minimum to survive and had to make do in a tiny enclosure.
The Alien Station
With the passing of the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, the number of immigrants being allowed into the United States declined greatly. The passing of the bill ended the era of mass immigration. By mid-1920s the island was a deportation center, where “enemy aliens” were detained. Many ambiguous policies stained the reputation of this island of fate and eventually, it closed down in 1954.
It was later reopened in 1976 as a museum to display the roots of one of the greatest nations of the earth. Today, as we face the challenges of almost 3% of the world’s population being displaced and homeless, the brutal realities of immigration trapped in the annals of NYC’s Ellis Island become all the more relatable. Here’s wishing that all people displaced by the ravages of man find a safe place on this planet we all call home.
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