Lest We Forget: A Trip to Ellis Island

This year Boston College gifted its students and faculty an extra day of reprieve on Columbus Day weekend, creating a new, four-day “fall break.” I took advantage of the extra time by heading down to visit my father in New York City, where we decided to spend a morning visiting Ellis Island and the immigration museum there. We set out with high hopes that were, unfortunately, chastened by missed opportunities.

Stepping off the boat at Ellis Island, you walk up to the main building that houses the exhibits and the only one that the standard ticket gets you into. The museum opens with a walk through the nation’s immigration history, beginning before Jamestown and stretching to the 1890s, when Ellis Island opened. The Trail of Tears, the Slave Trade, the mix of cultures that produced the likes of Jazz are all addressed. The history is deep and serves as a proper warm up to the story of the island itself, but, as my father pointed out, they might as well just hand you a book when you step off the boat. Displaying few artifacts, the exhibit doesn’t engage its visitors. You mostly step precariously around others, trying to stay out of their line of sight. I found myself gazing at the floor, which is a beautiful white tile, and wondering if it is original (it is).

Upstairs you walk through the stunning Great Hall, through which up to five-thousand immigrants would pass daily. The room is broad and tall, with a radiant, white-tile ceiling composed of a series of vaulted arches. Here was an opportunity for present day visitors to feel what is was like to stand around waiting for hours to have your future livelihood determined by a bureaucrat. But the entire floor space is bare; there is no attempt to recreate the lines, the stations where immigrants were examined for five hours, or the hearings that occurred if you were selected for deportation. The story of what those immigrants endured is shared in a series of small rooms abutting the Great Hall, which you wind your way through while reading more.

What Maya Angelou learned about people remembering not what you tell them but how you make them feel applies with equal force to spaces. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, for example, provides a crushing sense of the systemic devastation perpetrated by white Americans against black communities. The memorial’s path leads you through and eventually under hanging blocks of rusted metal, each representing a county where a racially-motivated lynching took place, and each bearing the names of the murdered. Although the two address different aspects of our nation’s history, the Ellis Island museum missed the opportunity, captured well in Montgomery, to ingrain in visitors a powerful feeling.

But even the information presented is incomplete. The story told ends in 1954, when Ellis Island stopped processing new arrivals. That is hardly when the story of immigration ends in our country. I bounced this concern off my dad: That’s not the point of this museum, he responded, this place tells the story of this place, nothing more. But the museum is called the “Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration,” and such a title demands a comprehensive picture. For example, a poster (“Immigration Restrictions”) detailing laws passed that made immigration into the United States more difficult stops in 1924. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that our country has passed many more restrictive immigration laws in the near century since.

Such a limited telling begets forgetfulness and is dangerously circumspect. Passing through the museum, I saw a young couple with their daughter. The father was wearing a hat that declared “I Support President Trump,” and as he walked back to his wife from reading an exhibit she asked him, what did you learn? You certainly learn that America became more restrictive towards immigrants during the 20th Century (initially, 98% of those who passed through Ellis Island were admitted into the country). But you don’t learn how those policies reach into the present. You don’t learn about the end of the quota system in 1965. You don’t learn why Obama was monikered the Deporter in Chief. You don’t learn about Trump’s travel bans. And, importantly in a city like New York, you don’t learn about how American immigration policy shifted after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Not exposing those historical threads can lead to an inexcusable ignorance about how we got to where we are. Immigration is a living issue; it is incapable of preservation, and cannot be addressed in a museum that only gazes back at history.

Back in Montgomery, the Peace and Justice Memorial’s companion, the Legacy Museum, manages to tell the complex story of how slavery is reincarnated in today’s system of mass incarceration in a space much smaller than the Ellis Island museum. Stories that employ history to explain our current direction are not easily told, and the perils of oversimplification or simple silence are grave. The National Park Service, which operates Ellis Island, has proven itself capable of telling such stories in a moving way. The Brown v. Board of Education site in Topeka, Kansas begins the story of unequal education with criminal prohibitions against teaching slaves how to read and write. The fights by oppressed groups tangential to the civil rights movement are mentioned. The historical timeline that runs throughout that museum incorporates dates like the 1830 Indian Removal Act and the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. The museum acknowledges that fights for equal rights are far from over. It also includes a short hall with television monitors covering the entirety of both walls. As you walk through, loud voices shout hateful racial slurs and the monitors show pictures of those who surrounded children walking to school once segregation was nominally ended. The power of that experience lingers in your mind long after you drive away.

This brings me to the most impactful moment of visiting Ellis Island, which occurs before you even set foot on the ferry over. After purchasing a ticket, you’re shepherded through “airport style” security. Then, you crowd into a tent near where the boat docks waiting for the next vessel to arrive. Surrounded by people of all hues speaking countless languages while babies howl, in a temperature that slowly crescendos to an uncomfortable plateau, the National Park Service and Statue Cruises have—I can only imagine unintentionally but with majestic effect—created a brief meta-experience of what the chaos of immigrating through Ellis Island might have felt like.

Alex Bou-Rhodes is a 3L at BC Law. He can be reached at bourhode@bc.edu.

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