[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 for Ellis’s 125th anniversary I’ll analyze five contexts for the station and the immigration stories to which it connects. Leading up to a special weekend post on 21st century immigration!]
On why it’s vitally important to remember Ellis, and the less and more productive ways to do so.
According to the National Park Service, an estimated 40% of all 21st century Americans can trace their heritage to at least one immigrant who made his or her way into the United States through the Ellis Island immigration station (including this AmericanStudier, all four of whose maternal great-grandparents came through Ellis before settling in the Boston area). There are very few formative historical experiences which are shared by so many American families, and that connection makes Ellis Island one of our more meaningful communal spaces. Yet as I’ve argued all week, since its opening 125 years ago up through the recent launches of the Peopling of America exhibits Ellis Island has also embodied the immigrant experience more broadly, and thus can and has become a significant part of our collective images and memories even for (for example) those many immigrants and immigrant communities who have come to the United States since the station closed in 1954. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to remember those multiple periods and histories, but there’s no doubt that collective memories do depend on shared communal focal points (lieux de memoire, as French historian Pierre Nora has named such sites), and Ellis Island is and should be such a lieux de memoire.
It’s not enough just to remember something, though—how we remember is just as important. Far too much of the time, our collective memories of Ellis Island are linked to phrases like “My ancestors came here legally” and “My ancestors waited in line and followed the rules.” I’ve written a good deal about why the first phrase is almost always inaccurate, so here will focus on the second. It’s true that Ellis Island had lines and rules, and that arrivals whose ships came to Ellis waited in and followed them. But any implication that those arrivals chose to do so is false and nonsensical—immigrants came where their methods of transportation took them, and then whatever happened at each site happened; there were no border patrols on either the Mexican or Canadian borders when Ellis opened, for example, so immigrants who came across them just came across. Furthermore, if anyone critiques 21st century undocumented immigrants by using one of these phrases, feel free to ask them if they’d be willing for all contemporary immigrants to simply answer 29 questions, prove they don’t have a communicable disease, and then enter the United States; that’s all that “standing in line and following the rules” meant at Ellis Island for its first few decades (things did change with the discriminatory 1920s Quota Acts, although immigrants still had no choices to make after that). Each of those histories is complicated and needs further analysis, but the bottom line is that if collective memories of Ellis use the site to attack current immigrant communities, they’re almost certainly doing so under false pretenses.
So if Ellis Island isn’t about remembering exemplary past immigrants in contrast to “illegal” contemporary ones, what narratives could we emphasize instead in those shared memories? A simpler answer, and certainly one I’d agree with, would be to find ways to include each of this week’s topics: the continuities and changes from Castle Garden to Ellis; the different stages and roles of the Ellis Island facilities; the national narratives and images highlighted by the list of 29 questions; the longstanding and evolving histories of quarantine. But I know that collective memories can’t necessarily start with four different complex topics at their heart, and I would say that Ellis Island can be boiled down further to one central duality (about which I’ve been thinking a good bit in the post-election period): exclusionary and inclusive images of American identity. Ellis was the site of post-Quota Act and World War II detention centers, and for all immigrant arrivals of a series of questions designed to define those individuals and identities that should be excluded from our national community, among other exclusionary histories linked to the site. Yet at the same time, Ellis embodies—particularly in its first few (pre-Quota Acts) decades of operation, and even more clearly in the museums and memorials now located on the site—a set of shared experiences that connect nearly all Americans into an inclusive vision of how our nation has been constructed. Indeed, I can think of few sites that encapsulate both sides of the exclusion/inclusion duality better than Ellis Island.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other Ellis Island responses or contexts?
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