Guest blogger: Maya Bhattacharjee, Breakthrough’s summer intern.
A couple of weeks ago, members of the Breakthrough team visited Ellis Island for an interactive tour for the final level of our human rights Facebook game, America 2049. (But remember, though it was the last level of our launch, the game lives on Facebook and may be played at any time!) Interning with the team at Breakthrough has been an extremely enlightening experience for me, and our trip to Ellis Island was nothing short of eye-opening and memorable. On the ferry, our Operations Manager, Julie Griff, recalled upon the team’s visit to Ellis Island exactly a year ago when America 2049 was still in its early stages, and here we were amidst the launch of its final level. As the ferry pulled into the dock and we set foot on the island, a woman beside me whispered to her son, “I can’t believe that Grandma Rose took this same step.” With that, I set foot on the island that twelve million immigrants came through in hopes of a better life in America.
We were met warmly by Ranger Bruce as we entered the Main Building, who brought us to the entrance of Ellis Island to help us re-live the immigrants’ experience. We first learned that those who arrived on Ellis Island were members of the “steerage class,” many of whom would be packed shoulder-to-shoulder into the steamships for sometimes up to eight days. First and second class passengers were processed on board on the ship, and thus it must be remembered that the count of twelve million processed on Ellis Island represents only members of the steerage class. Ranger Bruce reminded us that most immigrants were garbed in layers and layers of clothing, as they could only bring a small amount of luggage to their new life, and many of them received minimal food and sustenance on their exhausting journey. In John F. Kennedy’s A Nation of Immigrants he wrote: “There were probably as many reasons for coming to America as there were people who came.” Whether these immigrants were escaping religious persecution, political strife, unemployment, or simply trying to make a new life for their families, there were countless circumstances that lead to the greatest migration of modern history.
Ranger Bruce then described the “processing” that immigrants experienced upon entering the building. Doctors would watch the immigrants as they climbed the stairs leading to the Registry Room and if they witnessed a limp, labored breathing, or suspected any other troubles, they would perform further medical exams. I could not help but ask: after standing on a packed ship for up to ten days, how could one not limp or breathe heavily? Ranger Bruce reminded me that immigrants were determined to live their new lives in America, and this alone would perpetuate their drive and energy to compose their exhaustion no matter their age or size. He then described the brief medical exam that each immigrant would experience, including an eye hook that would be used to pull back their eye-lids in search of eye-disease. If the doctors suspected an illness, they would send them to a nearby hospital before entering the country. Once in the Registry Room, inspectors then questioned each individual with 29 questions.Imagine days with over 2,000 people in the room to question! They were asked where they were from, what they did for a living, where they were headed, the amount of money they were carrying, and if they suspected somebody to be a, as they called, “moron,” they would refer them to a psychiatric hospital. One of the hardest parts of the experience was hearing some of the case studies of immigrants who did not make it through– families who were separated. Ranger Bruce shared that they were deported—often back to lands where their lives were put in risk. The judges, (inspectors chosen at random from the registry room,) would have a few minutes to make their decision, and much personal discretion was used. He did share that the majority of immigrants did make it through and only two percent were denied entry.
As we recently celebrated our land of freedom and opportunity this past July 4th, I couldn’t help but think about what it means to be American today. We learned that America was an incredibly welcoming country during this point in history, and now while we represent opportunity and the freedom to begin a new life, “welcoming” seems far from our description. In the 1920’s, federal laws set immigration quotas based on national origin and in 1924, U.S. consulates took over immigration inspection. This was the beginning of a much more rigid immigration system. In later years, Ellis Island became a deportation center, a Public Health and Service hospital, and a Coast Guard station. For us, Ellis Island is now a memorial to all who have made this nation their adopted home, and the meeting point of the old world and the new.
This July 4th was a new one for me after our experience on Ellis Island. I can’t help but to think of everything that our country represented for those who came to Ellis Island, and to celebrate exactly what makes America so special. Yet, I reflect on the many struggles and obstacles that we still must surpass, and what freedom in America represents today. What does July 4th and our immigrant history mean to you? What does freedom in the United States really mean, and what can we do to uphold everything that we stand for? Please let us know your thoughts in our comments section below, on our Facebook page here, or on our twitter here!