In our modern American era, where immigration is the source of so much controversy, it’s worth remembering that America is a nation of immigrants. A visit to Ellis Island helps to make that abstract point a stark reality.
The vast majority of Americans trace their lineage to an ancestor who came here by boat. Some came earlier than others, and some came not by choice but in chains. Most of our forebears landed at a dock, strangers in a strange land, their only possessions what they were carrying in their satchels and bursting suitcases, often unable to speak English or any language other than their native dialect. Those who came voluntarily came because they wanted freedom and opportunity, and hoped that their decision would allow them to build a better life for themselves and their children.
I don’t think any Webners, or Neals, or Browns in our direct family line came through Ellis Island. It doesn’t make any difference, though, because the immigrant experience is universal, and Ellis Island is just a tangible manifestation of it. The stacks of baggage, the immensity of the main Registry Room where new arrivals waited to be examined, prodded, and questioned, with the rushed decisions of immigration officials reflected in chalk marks rudely made on the shoulder of a garment, and finally the cold, clinical, white-tiled rooms where applications for admission were processed, appeals were heard, and immigrants waited to have someone pass judgment on whether they could remain in the new land or must return — all help a visitor to appreciate how overwhelming the immigrant experience must have been.
What feelings of concern and trepidation they must have experienced, waiting in that large, jam-packed room, with many languages being spoken around them, hoping that they would hear good news about what their fate would be!
For me, the most moving area was a set of granite steps, well worn down by the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who had made it through the process and were moving forward as welcome citizens in a new land. Walking down those steps gives you a glimpse of what it must have been like to know that you and your family had the opportunity to start anew in this curious, bustling, growing country.