By Jeff Olson
In recent years, the subject of immigration has become a major cultural, economic and political issue in America, and it will continue to be – primarily because our country’s immigration system is not functioning as originally intended. There was a time, however, when the system worked pretty well and a vial part of that included a very important institution which shaped legal immigration’s role in America’s growth. One hundred twenty eight years ago this week, in January 1892, the first Ellis Island Immigration Station officially opened. Seven hundred immigrants passed through Ellis Island that day, and nearly 450,000 followed over the course of that first year. The island was named for Samuel Ellis, a merchant and farmer who owned the island in the late 18th century. The U.S. government bought the island in 1808.
In the 19th century, America was seen in the eyes of many as a country of huge expanse – in size, in resources, and most importantly in individual freedom and opportunity. A larger number of people from more countries therefore began looking to America in search of a better life. Annie Moore, 15, from Ireland was one of over12 million immigrants to cross the Atlantic over the next 62 years, and the first to pass through Ellis Island. Originally disembarking from sailing vessels and steamships, they were screened by doctors and immigration officers prior to being allowed into the United States. Not all were admitted into the country, but about 98 percent of them were. For the vast majority of immigrants, Ellis Island truly was an “Island of Hope” – the first stop on their way to new opportunities and experiences in America. It is estimated that 40 percent of all U.S. citizens can trace their ancestry through these immigrants. It is often said that American is a nation of immigrants, and Ellis Island was the hub of that reality. The island’s large-scale use as an immigration station ended in 1924, and it closed completely in 1954.
America’s growth and development can, to a large extent, be credited to the religious values, work ethic, personal initiative, ingenuity, and self-reliance which many of these pilgrims brought to our shores. By in large they came to America not with the intention of supplanting America’s culture with their own, but to begin life anew and with little more than the clothes on their backs and the hope of determining their own destinies as Americans. Without surrendering their personal identities or heritage, they came and added their own creativity and enrichment to the American culture and contributed immensely in making her the most inclusive, industrious, and prosperous nation on earth. Their journey to and assimilation within America defined and personified the phrase “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one”) which is the Latin motto on the face of the Great Seal of the United States.
In 1965, the island became a national historic site and in 1990 the Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened to give present and future generations a better understanding and appreciation of this important aspect of America’s rich and diverse history. It certainly did for my wife and I through our visit there several years ago.
The story of Ellis Island is a composite of many stories; a tapestry woven by individuals and families facing uncertainty, risk, hardship, and the unknown in forging a new life from the abilities, imagination, creativity, and innovation which freedom can unleash through the human spirit. And, it reminds us historically of the important place of immigration within the rule of law which gave America her identity and reputation as a beacon of hope, a haven of liberty, and land of opportunity.