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America 2049 special agent (who is also our summer intern) on the history of Ellis Island and July 4th

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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.

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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 countryellis_exterior1 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!

Religious leaders of all faiths come together in the “immigrant capital of America”

A few days ago we told you about the many events taking place across New York City to mobilize support for immigration reform, building up to the nationwide march in DC on March 21st. Today we attended one of these events – an inter-faith convocation in which religious leaders of all faiths came together to talk about the pressing need for  just and human immigration reform in 2010.

The minute I walked in to the hall at the majestic Riverside Church, I could feel the energy in the room. There was a feeling of community, emerging from people united with the same purpose with a sense of hope and excitement as they look forward to change on the immediate horizon. Hosted by the Riverside Church and organized by the New York State Interfaith Network for Immigration Reform and the New York Immigration Coalition, the line-up of speakers was impressive in its variety and scope. In addition to a Member of Congress and representatives from the different immigration activist groups, the speakers represented various Christian denominations, and Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Buddhist faiths.

Kicking off the event, Rev. Robert Coleman welcomed everyone, alluding to the strength and responsibility of New Yorkers as citizens of the “immigrant capital of America.” He established concepts of equality of all before God, access to human rights for all, and the principle of hospitality as intrinsic to the Christian faith. These ideas were echoed by all the speakers from the different faiths as they referenced their scriptures and called for comprehensive immigration reform that respects due process and ensures the safety and unity of immigrants and their families. Referring to sections from the Torah, Rabbi Noam Marans spoke about the duty of people to look after those who were less privileged and stated that the greatness of a nation is judged not on how its most privileged are treated, but on how it supports its “weakest links.”

Rep. Charles Rangel, the New York Congressman who was instrumental in initially deferring the deportation of Jean Montrevil and eventually contributing to reuniting him with his family, gave his support to the convocation and praised the faith-based groups for uniting on the issue of immigration reform, one that he said was crucial to the growth, stability, and moral integrity of the country.  Rep. Rangel said that he believed that immigration reform would benefit the economy as well as national security, and assured the group that he was committed to ensuring that the reform bill introduced by Rep. Gutierrez and Sen. Schumer would be passed in the Senate and the House this year.

In addition to the idea that all humans must treat each other with respect and dignity irrespective of their language, nationality or status, there was a second trope that ran through the speeches that jumped out at me; the notion of the United States as a nation that was built on the hard work and contribution of immigrants from all over the world. A number of the speakers mentioned the ways in which a path to legalization for the nation’s 12 million immigrants would benefit the economy, as well as the ways in which the current situation was allowing for immigrant workers to be exploited and paid less than minimum wage. Anindita Chatterjee Bhaumik, the Hindu Clergy Liason for the NYPD, for example, quoted from the Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, and spoke of how the country cannot progress without access to human rights for all. Bishop Jeremiah Park of the United Methodist Church told his own story as a first generation immigrant from South Korea in search of the American dream, and invoking the values inherent in the Statue of Liberty, urged President Obama and Congress to build bridges and allow immigrants to be productive and healthy members of the country that they were already a part of. “We, as people of faith, cannot be passive,” he urged.

As communities across the country have been coming out in support of immigration reform, the faith community has remained one of the strongest forces in this fight for immigration reform. We hope that their united front, combined with their commitment to the cause and dedication to their faiths will encourage more people to join the movement and see that this issue affects everyone in one way or another.