It was my first visit to Ellis Island. The island housed the immigration processing center that was in operation from 1892 to 1954. It was known as the Island of Hope for the 12 million welcomed into the USA and the Island of Tears for those who were denied entry. Today it is both a documentation and a tribute to the peopling of America during those years.
Reading about Ellis Island is no substitute for being there. The cavernous halls that held the hopeful are filled with their ghosts. There is a palpable spirit about the place that settles about today’s visitors, and while these
same visitors were loud and lively at the Statue of Liberty, here they were solemn, quietly stepping about the displays and reading the placards. They whispered as they moved through the rooms. Even the children seem to sense that this was a place of importance and refrained from quick movements and loud voices.
My grandparents came to this country through Ellis Island as did my husband’s grandparents. It is hard to imagine what it must have been like for them leaving their family and friends to start a new life in a strange new land thousands of miles away from their homeland without knowing the language or the customs. Many of the immigrants endured incredible hardships just to give their children a chance at a better life. And, once here, many suffered discrimination at the hands of the nativists. Many died under sad circumstances or deplorable conditions and not all of their children survived. Being in this place allowed me to say thank you for my life as an American: I want those who came before me to know that I survived and that as a result of their bravery, I do have a better life.
But now I’m the nativist. What is my role in this debate on immigration and immigration reform? I have always thought of our immigrant past as an asset, as the basis for a great nation. I read news accounts of political and religious refugees and ache for their pain. I watch video of newly naturalized US citizens and feel their pride. Somewhere deep inside me I carry the immigrants’ story and feel the need to pay-it-forward. Are today’s immigrants so different from yesterday’s?
I listen to my fellow traveller as she tells me about the Muslims trying to get into this country. They want to kill us, all the Christians, she says. They have to, it’s in their bible, she adds. I’ve have heard that the Muslims are horribly misunderstood, that their religion is one of peace. Oh, no, she continues. My pastor told us. The Muslims and the Christian feud goes back to Malachi. Malachi? Of the Old Testament? Before the birth of Christ? Yes, she says.
I do not argue but I am perplexed.
I turn to my friend and ask, Do you know any Muslims? No, she answers.
Have you read the Qur’an? I ask. No, she answers again.
Perhaps we should. I’m thinking it might be a start in a pay-it-forward sort of way.