Ellis Island, New York: the immigrants’ entrance to a land of opportunity
by Brian Radcliffe
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To encourage us to consider the issues surrounding the topic of immigration (SEAL theme: Empathy).
Preparation and materials
You will need a leader and three readers.
Have available an image of the Statue of Liberty with Ellis Island in the background and the means to display it during the assembly. An example is available at: http://tinyurl.com/h97fuve
Leader: If you were to sail into New York Bay, the dominant sight would be the Statue of Liberty, the welcoming symbol of the USA.
Show the image of the Statue of Liberty with Ellis Island in the background.
Close to the Statue of Liberty is Ellis Island. This island was formerly a defensive fortress, but on 1 January 1892, it was designated the official entry point to a growing country. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries marked a period of enormous immigration to the USA, which was regarded as a land of prosperity and opportunity. Families and individuals came from Ireland, England, Italy, Scandinavia, Poland, Lithuania and many other European countries. What were their reasons?
Reader 1: Some came because of political instability in their home nation. They feared civil war and violent reprisals.
Reader 2: Others came because of religious persecution. Jews were the largest group, but there were many other groups under pressure from competing faiths and ideologies.
Reader 3: Finally, there were those who were fleeing deteriorating economic conditions. They saw the USA as a land where they could earn a better living, where their children would have greater opportunities and where they could happily settle.
Leader: Immigrants were subjected to a medical inspection and required to produce legal documents that verified who they were. Officials were instructed to treat each person with courtesy and respect in recognition of the difficulties of the transatlantic voyage that they had endured. In fact, only about two per cent of arrivals were refused entry, usually because they were carrying a contagious disease or because they were seen as scroungers who had no intention of working and would simply become a drain on state benefits.
The system worked well until the 1920s, when opposition to immigration began to grow. There was a public perception that those who arrived from particular areas of the world were somehow inferior to the ‘old immigrants’ whose predecessors had arrived a generation or two earlier. There were attempts to make it harder for immigrants to stay, a task that became increasingly difficult with the turmoil taking place in Europe in the 1930s. It was only the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 that put a halt to the mass exodus across the ocean.
Much of this story rings bells today. Immigration is said to be the main issue that persuaded a majority of British people to vote for the UK to leave the European Union. So what might we learn from the American experience?
Reader 1: First, we should recognize that we in Britain are composed of ‘old immigrants’, too. It is estimated that half of all Americans can trace their family history to at least one person who passed through Ellis Island. It may be that a far higher percentage of UK citizens can trace their origins back to immigrants from Europe, Africa and Asia. Britain has been a migrant destination for millennia. Many of our families are rooted in immigration, so maybe we need to take this into account when forming our opinions about present-day migrants.
Reader 2: Second, the reasons for people wanting to come to the UK are no different to the reasons why people wanted to emigrate to the USA over a hundred years ago. Today, there is political instability throughout North Africa, and civil war in Syria and South Yemen, to name but two countries. Religious persecution exists throughout the Middle East and is spreading even into Western Europe. Finally, there are families who are desperate to create a better standard of living. Many of them don’t want to live in luxury; they merely want a job that pays a living wage, a home that keeps them safe and an education for their children.
Leader: We are fortunate if we live in a peaceful place that has relative political stability, free to practise any religion or none, well-fed, secure and enjoying good educational prospects. Living in such an environment raises the question of whether we should criticize the aspirations of the immigrants we see on the news. Is it hypocritical to say, ‘I can have all this, but I’m going to deny it to you’?
Reader 3: At Ellis Island, there were restrictions, though. Anyone who entered the USA had to have an intention to work for a living. No scroungers were allowed in. That probably makes sense to most of us – every one of us should earn the privileges that we enjoy. In addition, nothing that was going to harm society was allowed in. The concern at Ellis Island was medical, particularly contagious diseases. Probably just as important for us today are ideologies that promote division and violent social disorder. We cannot encourage into the country people whose intention is to destroy everything that is valuable to us.
Leader: We find it easy to criticize politicians and leaders who make decisions about what is happening in the world. However, they are in a very difficult position: they cannot possibly keep everyone happy. How do we react when decisions are made with which we don’t agree? How can we have a voice in the world? Are our decisions based on selfish values, or on truth, honesty and compassion?
Time for reflection
The Bible is clear about the importance of a welcoming attitude to those who want to enter a community. In biblical times, these people were referred to as ‘sojourners’. Hospitality to strangers was taken as the norm. Jesus endorsed this approach, encouraging his followers to welcome needy strangers and to love their neighbour, even if the neighbour came from a totally different culture.
As we try as a nation to tackle the difficult issue of immigration, let’s start with the attitude of the original Ellis Island officials, to treat asylum seekers and economic migrants with courtesy and respect. We need to think carefully about our attitudes and reactions to their plight.
Thank you for the safety and security of this country.
Remind us of our obligation to support those from unsafe, volatile countries.
Help us to work out a clear, positive and helpful understanding.
‘Englishman in New York’ by Sting