January 1 marked the 124th anniversary of the opening of Ellis Island. Years later, in 1916, the immigrant inspection station was opened. Over the course of 60 years, more than 12 million immigrants came through the island.
Almost all of my great-grandparents were among that number, although, according to a sister who has been researching our history on ancestry.com, we can’t find any records. A fire destroyed the original station in 1897. It’s likely that our family’s records went up in flames with so many others’. Although — like many New Yorkers — I’ve never been there (who really has the time to schlep over there except tourists or class trips?), the island looms large in our collective self-understanding. Yes, we are Americans, but for us “American” meant “immigrant.”
In 1910 my great-grandmother, Gelsamine Ferrigno, arrived at Ellis Island — a teen bride with her husband and two children desperate to make a better life. The story that has been passed down, confirmed by relatives both here and in Italy, is that the family decided that Gelsamine and Albert were the most likely to succeed so they pooled their resources, put them on a boat to America, said their goodbyes and told them to get work, make money, and send it back to their needy family in Solerno, Italy.
I often think about the elements of what I know of my story: immigrants from Italy, teenagers bearing a family burden, pressure to learn language and culture, permanent goodbyes to everything they ever knew, loneliness, fear.
There are two main reasons I often reminisce on this story in my family history. First, I am eagerly working to support reform to our immigration laws for the immigrants of today.
Our immigration laws are broken and are in dire need of some attention. Families are being separated, a permanent underclass is being kept in the shadows, and our country continues to thrive on the adage “we want your work, we just don’t want you.” It is not just. It is not biblical, and there is no reason for politicians to willfully put politics before the needs of vulnerable people in our communities.
"'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you drink? And when was it that we saw yo a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'"
--Matthew 25. 37-40
All this immigration talk reminds me of an encounter my wife and I had at a fast food restaurant in Atlanta. The night manager was Hispanic. He came by our table to make sure everything was all right. We started talking. I told him how troubled I was over our immigration debate.
That casual remark opened his door wide. He told me how scared many of his friends were. Some had already left the state. He told me they only wanted to work and send money back home where things were so tight. One very sick friend, he said would not go to the doctor or hospital because she was afraid of being deported. He told me he kept reading that these immigration laws had nothing to do with racial profiling.
He shook his head. “I have been stopped six times in the last few months mostly because I was Hispanic.”