In 1982, President Ronald Reagan tapped Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca to head an effort to restore and preserve the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. By 1986, the Statue of Liberty was as good as new, and four years later The Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened its doors. In his remarks on July 3, 1986, just before the torch of Lady Liberty was relit, Reagan said:
“Call it mysticism if you will, I have always believed there was some divine providence that placed this great land here between two great oceans, to be found by a special kind of people from every corner of the world, who had a special love for freedom and special courage that enabled them to leave their own land, leave their friends and their countrymen, and come to this new and strange land to build a New World of peace and freedom and hope.”
Reagan understood something that too many modern conservatives seem to have forgotten. He knew that the story of immigration, more than any other, is the story of America. And he knew that the torch atop the great statue in New York Harbor served two purposes: to offer welcome to those yearning to be free, and to offer hope to the world that freedom is possible.
I spent three years working on Ellis Island, stage-managing a short play performed for tourists that told some Americans’ tales of immigration. Visitors to the museum are taken through the courageous steps of the 12 million people who passed through the Island, with its inspections and medical tests. Many visitors avail themselves of the vast records held at Ellis Island. Some leave with photocopies of their ancestors’ names on ship manifests.
I don’t go in for mysticism much, but one is hard-pressed to walk through the doors of Ellis Island without feeling the ghosts of those millions, their mixture of apprehension and hope, joy at a new life, sadness at losing an old one, and awe at the gleaming metropolis awaiting them across the harbor.
Today’s Immigration Worries Mimic Old Ones
As many of the GOP candidates for president scramble to keep up with anti-immigrant-in-chief Donald Trump, we need to think about Ellis Island. We need to ask ourselves where we would have stood on the question of immigration during the island’s peak from 1892 to 1924. Would we have, Trump-like, slammed the door shut on the Italians, Jews, and eastern Europeans flocking to America? If so, how many of us wouldn’t be here today?
Often we hear that today’s immigrants are different. We are told that Ellis Island’s immigrants were hard-working people willing to assimilate to American ways. On the other hand, today’s immigrants are cast as criminals who will end American culture as we know it. But even a cursory study of the Ellis Island period shows us that not only were many Americans then concerned about crime and cultural change as a result of immigration, they had good reason to be.
Two infamous immigrants who came through Ellis Island would help to create the most powerful criminal enterprise in the history of the United States. Italian Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Jew Meyer Lansky were essential to the birth of the mafia Commission, a national network of criminal syndicates. The Commission and its borgatas, or families, used small armies of immigrant soldiers to build a violent and lucrative empire that authorities for decades were unable to stop.
By the early 1980s, however, another descendant of Italy, Rudolph Giuliani, would use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to take down that very Commission. What becomes quickly obvious is that for all the murder, theft, and corruption that the Italian mafia engaged in, the net benefit of Italian immigration to our country far outweighs it. It was, in fact, a very small price to pay.
New People Make Us Better
In terms of culture the (now considered) white immigrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century didn’t simply embrace American culture and leave it unchanged. The Irish changed politics immeasurably in many big cities. The Jews changed entertainment in enormous ways. The Italians changed how we eat and what music we listened to. The melting pot always went both ways. After the Ellis Island wave of immigration, white, Protestant, traditional America would never be the same.
These very cultural changes led nativists in the early twentieth century to reject immigration and by 1924 to severely limit it. In his 1916 book, “The Passing of a Great Race,” Madison Grant laid out the dangers to America in allowing immigration from southern and eastern Europe. He argued that, unlike the “Nordic” traditional American people of strong racial stock, these darker, swarthier Europeans were scientifically inferior.
The book was wildly successful and influential. Grant himself would contribute to the creation of the Immigration Act of 1924, ending the Ellis Island period, and ushering in the shadowy period of illegal immigration that remains with us. But there is a reason Grant is neither a household nor a venerated name. His book and ideas are now rightfully viewed as horribly racist. It is not Grant that Americans celebrate with a museum, it is the immigrants he so opposed. Ann Coulter’s new book, “Adios, America,” is in many ways a kinder, gentler sequel to Grant’s program of eugenics. It’s a call to all “real Americans” to make sure we don’t lose our country to this browner, inferior stock.
It’s Not about Need, It’s about Opportunity
The rationalist’s argument against immigration is that times have simply changed. In the new economy, we no longer have the need for unskilled labor that we had during the Ellis Island period. There are compelling economic arguments on both sides of this question, but in many ways the question misses the point. Immigration was never solely about its benefit to the United States. It is also about the benefit to the immigrants and their families.
On the stump, Sen. Ted Cruz talks a lot about how his father worked for 50 cents an hour as a dish washer when he arrived in this country. Was there a lack of dish washers in the United States in 1957 that required immigrants to fill the void? Of course there wasn’t, and the elder Cruz had no intention of spending his life washing dishes. Rafael Cruz was allowed into the country not so much because it needed him, but because he needed it. For him, America really was the land of opportunity, as it is for many millions today.
Immigration is, and has always been, a mark of the strength and power of the United States. Our ability to take in such a multitude of diverse people yet live under the most stable form of government in the world for two and a half centuries shows us this strength. In fact, the Statue of Liberty itself shows us the relationship between America’s power and its welcoming generosity quite concretely.
Give Us Those Yearning to Breathe Free
The eleven-pointed star at the base of Lady Liberty is not decoration. It is a fortress. After the British occupied New York Harbor during the Revolution, the nascent federal government vowed to never let it happen again. Five fortresses were constructed in the harbor, with the crossfire capability to destroy an invading navy. It worked. In 1812, the British dared not attack New York. Instead they settled for the easier, but less strategically valuable, target of Maryland.
One of those fortresses, Fort Wood, on what is now Liberty Island, would become the pedestal for the enormous statue gifted to our country by the French in 1886. It was the emerging military and economic power of the United States that allowed us to become a new kind of nation. Not a nation of bloodlines, not a nation where people are judged by who their parents are, but a beacon of freedom and hope to every person in the world.
If we choose to replace the words “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” with “give us your best-educated and most employable, and everyone else stay out,” then we will lose the very thing that makes America what it is. We will no longer be the great nation and hope of the world that Reagan described. Instead, we will become Donald Trump’s vision of a selfish, cowardly people, bunkered behind our border walls, waiting for history and the rest of the world to pass us by.