Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bad Days in American History: November 12, 1954

On this day in 1954 Ellis Island closed.

What's so bad about that? It was an old, increasingly unused, dilapidated facility. But it's the unused part that gets at me. It's a bad day because nothing better gets at U.S. immigration policy between 1924 and 1965.

15 million people came through the gates of Ellis Island from its opening in 1892 until its closing, the vast majority before 1924. It's a place of both great sorrow and great joy--it was where most people had to go through a series of examinations before being allowed into the U.S. If you were found to have a disease or be mentally slow (by the judgments of racist immigration agents) or a criminal or a radical or (later) a single woman, you were put back on the ship and sent back to wherever you came from. Families were torn apart this way. But if you made it through, you were in the United States. Whether that was to say (Jews) or to work for a couple of years and go back home (Italians and Greeks), it didn't matter--you had entered this new land.

But all these immigrants made Anglo-Saxon Americans nervous. What kind of a nation could have Catholics and Jews on its shores? Not to mention anarchists, communists, labor organizers and Muslims. While Americans have traditionally allowed immigrants to enter the country, sometimes in very large numbers, there's always been a tension between people who either a) want cheap labor, b) welcome diversity, or c) want their family members to come live with them and racists. This led to the Know-Nothing party in the 1840s and the Minutemen today. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it led to increased restrictions on immigrants, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and continuing through the series of laws in the early 1920s that restricted immigrants from "undesirable" places from our shores. If you were Engish or French, it was fine. If you were Italian, Syrian, Russian, or Polish, it was not fine.

So in 1924, Ellis Island began to see a lot less traffic. And we weren't going to be swayed to increase that traffic either, not by the boatloads of Jewish immigrants desperately trying to escape Nazi Germany, and not by anything either. So in 1954, what purpose was there in keeping Ellis Island open? None, really. It was old and it was big and expensive to operate. Plus it was the 1950s, a period where nothing old had any value in American society. It's the same time that urban renewal was turning our city's historical cores into parking lots. So why not move our much more limited immigration center needs to a fancy office in a nice new modern building. So we shut it and let it sit there, falling apart. In 1961, the country put Ellis Island up for auction, but nobody bought it.

By the mid 1960s, postwar liberalism was at its peak in this nation. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing and having major success. Other groups began demanding more rights. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was fighting a war on poverty. And Johnson began reconsidering our closed borders. In 1965, he signed the Immigration Act, reopening our borders. He kept the quota system of the 1924 laws, limiting immigrations from each country to a particular number, but seriously skewed those numbers to Asia, Africa, Latin America, and eastern Europe. He also reopened the nation to political refugees, a pretty necessary move given the escalating war in Vietnam. While this system is far from perfect (see the necessity for illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America), it is one of Johnson's most positive legacies. That it hasn't been improved on by subsequent political leaders is a shame upon this country.

Also in 1965, Johnson decided to turn the unused space at Ellis Island into an immigration museum for this country, though this was not completed until 1990. Today, it is one of the best places in the country to experience American history. It's basically a perfect experience, though I might quibble that they should focus even more on the anti-immigration propaganda of the period than they already do. Walking into the immigration center on Ellis Island is not just stepping into the past, it's feeling the heartbreak and tragedy, the opportunity and joy, of the American immigrant experience. Seeing the loads of lost and unclaimed baggage when you walk in makes you almost want to cry--what was in those bags? Who did they belong to? What are their stories? What happened to them? And it only goes from there.

In the end, I'd like to say that we've overcome the kind of prejudices that closed Ellis Island, but of course we haven't. We are still plagued with white supremacy, both the active kind but more insidiously, the kind that makes rural whites in Nebraska and Alabama fear that Mexicans are threatening the nation's white culture. Me, I'd say those places are far better off for the arrival of Latinos.