The Desert Mirage of Ellis Island

When I was a child, one of my strongest memories is the weekend of the 4th of July, 1986, Liberty Weekend, when there was a grand celebration for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty as well as the annual celebration of the Declaration of Independence…the birth of our nation. Much was made of her new golden torch which promised to shine brighter then ever. President Ronald Reagan “lit” the shining new freedom shaped beacon, the grandest display of fireworks I have ever seen lit up New York harbor and there have been few times in my life that I was so completely overwhelmed with pride.

What I remember the most were the tall ships. They came from around the country and around the world. They sailed into New York harbor in all sorts of colors and shapes in such numbers that by the time they all anchored, their masts gave the illusion of a grand floating forest. I found it so easy to imagine what it was like during the heyday of the shipping routes into the famous harbor.

It was also easy to imagine the countless scores of immigrants, the tired, the poor sitting on the decks of these ships in huddled masses as they emerged through the Narrows with The Statue of Liberty welcoming them into The Land of Opportunity. It was easy to get a sense of what they must have felt, after following the promise of a dream, drawn to this majestic symbol of freedom across the sea. At the same time, that will…the faith in such ideals that you put yourself on a cramped boat to travel across the Atlantic to see the light at the end hoisted by this beautiful lady in the harbor was unimaginable.

President Ronald Reagan would say of the procession of ships:

Perhaps, indeed, these vessels embody our conception of liberty itself: to have before one no impediments, only open spaces; to chart one’s own course and take the adventure of life as it comes; to be free as the wind – as free as the tall ships themselves. It’s fitting, then, that this procession should take place in honor of Lady Liberty.

The trip across the Atlantic was a perilous journey. A journey of starvation and hardships. A journey of heartache and crime. A journey where bodily harm and life changing moments could come from not just the vast ocean but one’s fellow human beings with every crashing wave. The journey to freedom, the journey to escape oppression and starvation and tyranny was never easy.

Yet, at the end of the journey, there was the Statue of Liberty, the “Mother of Exiles” to welcome in her new citizens. A shining beacon at the end of the dark tunnel welcoming.

“With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!'”

  • The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus

Not far from this majestic lady is Ellis Island, the actual (but not literal) golden door where generations of people took their first steps as Americans. The Statue of Liberty was the glorious symbol of all that America had to offer. Ellis Island was the cold hard slap in the face from reality, a reminder that the American Dream is not easy. From many accounts, going through Ellis Island was intimidating, scary and even humiliating. They came across the sea on treacherous voyages only to stand in lines, poked and prodded by medical staff and, in some cases, stripped of the only thing they had, the clothes on their backs. However, those that left the island for New York City and places beyond found freedom, opportunity and a new life. They became the mothers and fathers of countless Americans and as long as this country exists, much of her citizens will be able to trace their roots back past the pedestal of Lady Liberty and through the doors of Ellis Island. For a long time, it was the path of liberty.

These would be the people that made America great. They left their countries behind either searching for a better life or to escape a tortured life. They built and died along the railroad tracks that moved this country west. They climbed high into the steel frames of America’s great skyscrapers, risking their lives to take our aspirations into the clouds. They plowed and cultivated the great prairies, suffering flood and drought and isolation to feed their new nation. They took the jobs that others were too proud, too elevated to take.

Some of these immigrants would go back across the ocean and die on the battlefields of Europe protecting not just the families they left behind but also for the ideals and dreams they left their families for. These immigrants and their descendants were a big part of “The Greatest Generation”. And generations before and after them died on nearly every battlefield, from Lexington and Concord to Baghdad.

There is no question that it was immigrants that made America Great. It was immigrants and descendants of immigrants that kept it great. It is future immigrants that will help keep it great.

I know in my heart this to be true, so, I do not understand my country. I don’t understand it at all. Ellis Island is a revered site, almost a holy site for those that trace their lives back through it. We hold the Statue of Liberty as one of our greatest symbols. At her feet we literally welcome the huddled masses into our country. We proudly call ourselves a melting pot, a nation of immigrants.

Yet, at our southern border, to the people that need the American Dream as desperately as my Irish ancestors did, we want to build a wall. Instead of a grand Statue, welcoming them in, we want to build a grand wall to keep them out. We want to slam the golden door shut in the faces of those that need us the most. Why is there not an Ellis Island in the middle of the desert? Why is there no grand new Colossus standing tall in the desert sand? Why do we turn away our closest neighbors to the south after generations of accepting strangers from across the sea? Why do we turn away the people that need us the most?

No, I don’t get this country. Instead of using that money to build a wall, why are we not using it to reform our immigration system? I agree, illegal immigration needs to be addressed and those trying to sneak into our country should be stopped. But they do it because we make it so hard for them to come in legally. Instead of the all inclusive club we once were, we have become an exclusive country club where we make people jump through hoops to get in. We turn tired, opportunity seeking, proud people into illegals because they are so desperate to escape their lives of poverty and oppression that they would rather live illegally than in their home countries. 

It has been said that the wall would serve as a deterrent to families from making the journey to our door step…That it will save them from rape, robbery and death. Let that sink in. These people would risk the rape and death of themselves and their children for the opportunity that waits beyond the desert. Again…the risk of rape and death is an improvement on where they are coming from. Not only are we not helping them, but we are building a wall to keep them out and maintaining a system that throws them back. Instead of a shining golden beacon welcoming them, they find barbed wire telling them that, no, they are not welcome. Instead of hope inspiring poetry to reward them for their long journey, we give them legalese warning them that the American Dream is not one that they are entitled to.

And this is not new. This has been going on for a long time during many different administrations. Some administrations crack down on it more than others and some have ignored it. None of them have made a serious effort to fix the issue. We would rather turn people away or lock them up when they sneak in then figure out how to build a new Ellis Island, a new golden door in the desert.

Some Americans like to warn away efforts of reform with talk of Mexican gangs and unprecedented violence they would bring. They talk about how our neighbors to the south are the ones to fear, the ones that will make our streets unsafe. Yet, Gangs of New York is a movie based on a non-fiction book about violence between Irish immigrant gangs. SOME Irish immigrants, not all.

Corleone is an actual town in Sicily and Sicily is in Italy, not Mexico. While Vito Corleone is a fictional character, the violence and brutality that SOME Italian immigrants brought to this country was very real and that legacy continues to exist today.

The crime that SOME immigrants brought to our shores in the past and through our deserts now should not be dismissed or ignored. The point is, though, that keeping out all immigrants because a small percentage of them are violent would also be keeping out the good they bring, as well.

Turn back ships in the past and you turn away Alexander Hamilton and an Nikola Tesla. Albert Einstein, Madeleine Albright and Joseph Pulitzer would have disappeared from our history books if we as a nation turned immigrants away. Think of the National Park Service without John Muir and music without Irving Berlin and Eddie Van Halen. You wouldn’t be able to find Google without Sergey Brin and there would be no one to save the most recent Yankee dynasty from fizzling away without Mariano Rivera.

We are a nation of immigrants. We are the melting pot. We are a people like no other in this world, a people of diverse blood and of hope and of perseverance. Legal immigration is a big, big issue, but we are a lesser nation for not attempting to solve it.

I struggle to understand the country we are…a nation so in love with our immigrant history and so ready to identify with our ancestors…our parents and grandparents…who came across the sea, yet so willing to turn our backs on the new wave of immigrants coming across the desert. It cheapens the American story to deny our southern neighbors the opportunities to live the American dream. It cheapens all of us and makes us lesser Americans.

In modern America, perhaps the Statue of Liberty is still a fitting symbol of the American dream…a brave symbol boldly standing before the world, but rusting and hollow on the inside while holding her golden torch out of reach. Ellis Island, as well…an empty, dusty museum now existing solely to remind us of a long gone past. And it makes me sad.

One of the most powerful presidential speeches I’ve ever heard came from President Ronald Reagan. Immigration was so important to him that his final speech as president included the following.

Now, tomorrow is a special day for me….And since this is the last speech that I will give as President, I think it’s fitting to leave one final thought, an observation about a country which I love…A man wrote me and said: “You can go to live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or a Japanese. But anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American.”

Yes, the torch of Lady Liberty symbolizes our freedom and represents our heritage, the compact with our parents, our grandparents, and our ancestors. It is that lady who gives us our great and special place in the world. For it’s the great life force of each generation of new Americans that guarantees that America’s triumph shall continue unsurpassed into the next century and beyond. Other countries may seek to compete with us; but in one vital area, as a beacon of freedom and opportunity that draws the people of the world, no country on Earth comes close.

This, I believe, is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness. We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation. While other countries cling to the stale past, here in America we breathe life into dreams. We create the future, and the world follows us into tomorrow. Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier. This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.

I pray that it is not too late for this country, that we haven’t closed the door so far that it cannot be re-opened. I believe we can still be that shining city on a hill that hasn’t been so caught up with the symbols that identify us that we have lost the meaning of the beliefs and ideals that define us. I haven’t lost faith in the American Dream…I like to believe I live the dream that my immigrant ancestors had once envisioned for their descendants when they arrived at Ellis Island. I pray that we figure out a clear and easier path for the next generations of immigrants to find their way through the oceans of sand to find not just a Statue, but the people of a compassionate nation welcoming them in. I have faith that the American Dream isn’t just a mirage in the sand but an oasis with room for all that need it.

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