Travel Diary: New York, Lady Liberty and America's Complicated History with Immigrants
Since the 1800s The Statue of Liberty has been an international beacon that represents hope, opportunity and the dream that everyone can live their best life. I have been to New York more than a few times, but it wasn't until my last trip that my husband and I decided to experience some of the essential New York tourist sites. We went to our first Broadway play, walked The Brooklyn Bridge, visited Ground Zero, and of course, took a ferry to Liberty and Ellis Islands. I'm not sure if it was because of my love of big ol statues or my obsession with the movie Ghostbusters II, but I was looking forward to seeing The Statue of Liberty up close.
The Statue of Liberty is an international icon. I already knew she was a gift to the U.S. from France. I also knew that she is made of copper, used to be brown, and the green cast that Lady Liberty proudly dons is from years of oxidation. What I didn't know about was the chilling piece of American history waiting for me at Ellis Island. In a nutshell, grade school taught us that immigrants came over, saw the Statue of Liberty in the horizon and their happy new lives in America began. Unfortunately, the rose-colored bubble that contained their hopes and dreams was instantly popped for many upon arriving at Ellis Island.
No one speaks of the dark side of the Island. Although many were inspected, processed and welcomed into New York with no issues, others never made it. Millions of immigrants relocated to New York Between 1892 and 1954, but its not often that we hear the unsung stories of the thousands that were deported, or the others that were detained and died at Ellis Island Immigration Hospital. With a high demand for immigrant laborers, the sick and feeble were cast out. Physical issues weren't the only reasons that many immigrants were unable to set foot on American soil. Officials often denied entry to "undesirable" immigrants; those with mental disorders, the disabled and even homosexuals. I understand certain practices being in place in favor of the overall well being of the public. If an immigrant had the bubonic plague or something of the sort, I could understand why they were denied entry. I don't know why, (especially considering the country's history), I was genuinely shocked and appalled about the treatment thousands of immigrants experienced. As a black woman, I have always been aware of the mistreatment of African American people, but it wasn't until my visit to Ellis Island, that I truly realized the mistreatment of other groups with skin that does not look like mine (though not as long), indeed existed, and these people suffered injustice from xenophobic and racists on the journey to becoming American citizens.
While walking around Ellis Island Museum, I couldn't help but think of the injustices that immigrants in America are STILL dealing with today. This nation was built by African slaves and their descendants in addition to the millions of immigrants that came from European countries. I thought about my own father, that entered the U.S from The Bahamas in the 1950s, and how he went on to become a teacher, being a valuable asset to the Florida school system for 37 years. He represented someone that was NOT born on American soil that came here and that made this country a better place. It's sad that this day in age, archaic ideals that deem immigrants less than, diseased or people that "live in huts" are still in motion. As I talk about the sad stories about Ellis Island immigrants, I cannot leave out the positive stories about the nurses, doctors and social workers that went the extra mile to be kind to scared children that were separated from parents. The ones that helped new citizens find clothing for their families and those that assisted many immigrants in finding jobs with higher wages. It is the people like them that helped to give this beautiful but flawed country a conscience.
Honestly, I don't see myself going back to Ellis Island again unless I have a kid someday. While I did enjoy seeing the Statue of Liberty up close, I don't need Ellis Island to remind me of America's issues with immigrants. I can turn on the tv to see that. On the ferry ride back to Manhattan, I realized I could never view Lady Liberty and Ellis Island in the same naive way I had before. Instead of just seeing her as a tourist attraction to mark off the bucket list or as the statue that saved NYC in Ghostbusters II (I really love Ghostbusters), I now see her as the keeper of New York's secrets. She has towered over the city witnessing hundreds of years of history. She has stood tall during the city's triumphant moments while keeping her torch ablaze during its low points. Although The United States is still haunted by yesteryear's ghosts of injustice and prejudice, she will continue to be the unwavering beacon of hope for immigrants and Americans alike for centuries to come.