Saturday, January 7, 2017
January 7-8, 2017: 21st Century Ellis Islands
[On January 1, 1892, Ellis Island immigration station opened in New York Harbor. Nearly 500,000 immigrants came through the station in its first year, and the rest is history. Very complex history, though, and so this week for Ellis’s 125th anniversary I’ve analyzed five contexts for the station and the immigration stories to which it connects. Leading up to this special weekend post on sites of 21st century immigration!]
Three contemporary sites that could be described as 21st century Ellis Islands.
1) That Damn Wall: If, as I argued in yesterday’s post, Ellis Island had stages and sides that have to be contextualized through the history of exclusionary visions of American identity and community, Donald Trump’s proposed “big beautiful wall” on the border with Mexico is something much simpler still: one giant embodiment of exclusion. I don’t expect that such a wall will ever be built in actuality, but regardless it’s hard to imagine a more potent symbolic representation of immigration narratives and policies that seek to define us as much by whom we keep out as whom we let in. Although we don’t like to admit it, our immigration laws have been connected to such questions for as long as we’ve had immigration laws (indeed, I argue in my third book that our immigration laws developed at all in order to create such discriminatory hierarchies), and so was Ellis Island in all too many ways.
2) Monticello (on July 4th): It was far more difficult for me to think of one site that could rival Ellis as a 21st century representation of an inclusive vision of America defined by the shared experiences of immigration. As I wrote earlier in the week, not all early 20th century immigrants came through Ellis by any means—but certainly many did, many tens of millions in fact. Whereas these days, immigrants arrive at every airport, every port, every border crossing, in so many spaces and ways. Yet there are still some experiences shared by many of those immigrant Americans, and the citizenship process is one such inclusive and inspiring (if also expensive and frustrating and often still too exclusionary) experience. Every July 4th, a group of immigrant Americans gather at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to become American citizens, one of many such ceremonies around the United States but a particularly evocative and symbolic one given the setting. So that’s one nominee for a moment and space that embody the best of what Ellis Island likewise comprised.
3) Define American: I’ve written before about José Antonio Vargas’ wonderful site, and won’t repeat those points here. Instead, I’ll just say that if there were to be a 21st century Ellis Island, it would make all the sense in the world for it to be a digital rather than physical site. As I’ve argued all week, Ellis was never just or even mainly the actual place, important as those facilities were for so many individuals and families and communities. It was also and especially the images and narratives, the ideas of immigration and America, the best and worst visions of our national community. The kinds of conversations and debates that now happen most consistently in online settings, ones with just as much at stake and the potential to affect our society just as fully as did the lines and questions and opportunities and quarantines of Ellis Island. Vargas and his site model the best of those 21st century spaces and communities, and since I’m an optimism—yes, even now—I’ll end this series there.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?