On a visit to Ellis Island a little over a year ago, I took a moment to stand and stare over the New York Bay. From a distance, a tall and proud Lady Liberty stands with a definite and welcoming demeanor. In one hand she holds a torch above her head. On the other, a tablet with July 4, 1776 inscribed in Roman numerals. At her feet lie broken chains.
At every turn, I could see the enormity and splendor that is America. The skyline of the greatest city in the world and the working people of the coast. Things big and small all moving together to keep this grand experiment of democracy alive.
And then I thought of the 12 million immigrants that made their way through this tiny piece of land called Ellis. They were soon to be strangers in a strange land. They came because they heard that America was a place like no other. There they could find the freedom and welcoming light of a lady named Liberty.
So the immigrants traveled from faraway places. Some were Jews, others were Poles, Hungarians, Greeks, Syrians, and Armenians. And others were from other places. On January 1, 1892, Ellis opened with a celebration and the very first immigrant was a teenage girl from Ireland who arrived with two younger brothers. Her purpose; to meet her parents who already lived in New York City.
On that New Year’s Day, 700 immigrants would be processed through America’s new welcome mat. Over the next 12 months, 450,000 immigrants would arrive in the New World, and Lady Liberty would be the first American to greet them.
At its peak, 5,000 immigrants were being processed daily at Ellis. They didn’t wait for court dates or fill out layers of bureaucratic paperwork. They came, were checked medically and with little delay, became American. We didn’t wait for them to learn English or know the names of former Presidents. We didn’t ask them how smart they were or what skill they were adding to our population. Today, more than 40% of Americans can trace their ancestry to an Ellis Island immigrant.
What would we be as a country if we restricted the entry of these new Americans? What would we look like, physically and ethnically? What inventions or innovations would have we missed? What businesses and communities would be absent from our history?
Not through Ellis Island, but at our southern border today, we are experiencing an influx of migrants from Central America who are seeking asylum. They are not jumping walls or crossing illegally. After a strenuous journey of 2,000 miles, they are arriving at our doorstep and seeking help. Our very own laws dictate that we hear their requests for sanctuary before we turn them away.
But today we don’t have a desire to stand tall and hold a bright light. We are afraid of what we don’t know. We see people that don’t look like us and we turn away. We convince ourselves that they are uneducated and sickly. We tell each other that these poor people must be criminals that have nothing to add to our country.
Lady Liberty never closes her eyes. She doesn’t even squint. She looks forward eternally, never turning her back. Her light is always on. Her tablets carry the same message, reminding us that independence is a gift to all.
We should remember and follow her example.