Sunday, May 3, 2015

Ellis Island

Last week I was in New York to give a mathematics presentation at NYU. On the side I did a little tourism, in particular a day at Ellis Island. These days the immigration issue, a hot button in politics, has become far more personal to me. My wife is not American, and it turns out these days you don't just show up on a boat to immigrate like you did back in the day--even if you're married to an American! But anyway, I've always been attracted by the story of America's great hey day of immigration. People left poverty and oppression seeking opportunity and freedom--there's nothing more beautiful to me than that, especially when there's a happy ending.

Ellis Island wasn't a completely open border in the sense that they let literally everyone in, but it was enough to satisfy me. About 2% of all people who showed up were eventually turned away, for health reasons or political factors (mostly unspecified by the tour). Still, that's only 2%. Today's system seems to make it the other way around--only a small fraction of people who would like to come here ever get the chance (legally). By comparison, the old way was far more welcoming.

Not that it was a picnic. You showed up on an overcrowded boat, you got in line with hundreds of other immigrants, you spent all day answering questions, getting a medical examination, and sometimes being examined further (to see whether you were insane, to see whether you were illiterate, to see whether you were a pauper...). Sometimes the immigration officers were kind, other times not so much. But again, you still had a 98% chance of making it out of that process (an 80% chance, if I understood correctly, of making it out in a single day) to live your new life in America.

And of course life was hard for new arrivals. There was a story commonly recounted by Italian immigrants that went something like this: "I came to America because I thought the streets were paved with gold. When I arrived, I learned three things: one, the streets of America were not paved with gold; two, the streets were not paved at all; and three, that I was expected to pave them." Just because there was more opportunity in America doesn't mean that wealth would be automatic.

I was highly impressed by the number of associations set up to welcome new immigrants. From the YMCA/YWCA and the Salvation Army to an array of organizations representing every ethnic and religious group you could think of. These groups took care of their own. Assimilation was not immediate; the first people you met in your new country were people who spoke your language and believed the things you believed. Yet there's no question that the immigrants loved America. How could they not, considering what they left to be here?

It was probably inevitable that Ellis Island be shut down at some point. Transportation has changed in the modern world--there's no reason to received everyone by boat on an island. Yet the real reason the center shut down when it did is that the laws become more restrictive. After World War I, America stopped welcoming newcomers. This seems to have been because of a confluence of economic protectionism together with anti-foreign bias that was aggravated by the Great War and the rise of communism in Russia. The 1920s may have been roaring, but they were not welcoming, and things only became worse shortly after. After 1924 Ellis Island went from processing new arrivals to detaining and deporting illegal immigrants. It finally closed in 1954, falling into disrepair.

I am glad to see the restorations they have done since the 1980s. It truly was a magnificent building, and, as they emphasized on the tour, this was not for kings but for the people--the rabble--who came here looking for a better life. It really makes my heart ache when I think of the difference between then and now. If I remember correctly, 40% of Americans can trace their ancestry back to someone who immigrated at Ellis Island. What would we be today if not for this amazing place? How can Americans despise their own history in accepting today's agonizingly restrictive immigration system?

I suppose history is full of such contradictions.

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