Editor’s Note: Megan J. Wolff, Ph.D M.P.H., is an historian and administrator at the DeWitt Wallace Institute for the History of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion at CNN.
I was an Ellis Island tour guide. Conditions on the southern border of the United States are categorically worse than they were when the island was the first stop for immigrants coming to America.
As a doctoral candidate in the history of public health, I worked not for the Parks Department (which operates the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration), but for an independent tour company staffed with graduate students. We provided walking tours all over the city, but Ellis was my specialty. Visitors liked to imagine themselves in the shoes of those who had come to the island before.
The more research I conducted into Ellis and its history, the better I was able to oblige.
“What percent of people do you think were sent back?” I liked to ask the groups as they stood facing the main building. Everyone enjoyed guessing, but most were shocked when I told them the actual figure. Despite the island’s hold on the national imagination, the rejection rate was less than 2%. Almost everyone who landed on what so many have called the “island of hope, island of tears” entered the United States.
This, I believe, is one key to the site’s popularity. Now a national monument, Ellis Island hosts about 3 million visitors a year (combined with the Statue of Liberty park, 4 million), most having come to retrace the steps of those who might have been turned away, but weren’t. They are seeking excitement, the romance of happy endings, and they are in the right place. By the time of its closure in 1954, Ellis Island had processed more than 12 million immigrants, and as a result, over 100 million Americans (more than 30% of the population) can trace an ancestor back through Ellis. In my experience, those who visited the place did so with a spirit that was both curious and eager.
I wager they would be far less eager to enact the scene currently taking place on the nation’s southern border. These days, I listen with amazement as reports roll in, not because history is repeating itself but because it isn’t. Conditions right now are dirtier, more dangerous, and significantly crueler than they ever were at Ellis Island – most pointedly so where children are concerned.
Administrative documents and oral histories, many of them available at the Museum or in the National Archives, tell us that personnel at Ellis did what they could to insulate children from the hardships of passing through government custody. Experience in the present moment could not be more different. Children are now being singled out for treatment more negligent and harmful than anything tolerated on Ellis, conditions where even infants and toddlers have been deprived of nearly every necessity, including soap and water. Dr. Dolly Lucio Sevier, who was recently granted access to one facility, described listless, dirty, and diaperless babies, crowded conditions, and inadequate sanitation, water, and food. She stated, “The conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities.”
Ordinary citizens and members of Congress took note. They demanded inspections, mounted protests. But when members of Congress visited one facility in Clint, Texas, two weeks ago, their experience was less than heartening. “It feels like a jail,” said Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts. The lawmakers themselves were not treated much better. According to inmates, conditions had improved only in deference to the visit. Reporters who toured the facility received the same message. “The agency prepped for you guys,” a CBP source with firsthand knowledge told CNN. “It’s a never-ending cat and mouse game.”
Government officials blame the conditions on what they claim is an unprecedented surge in arrivals. “As you are aware, we are responding to a historical crisis at the border,” Evelyn Stauffer, a spokeswoman for the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which oversees the network of shelters with custody over unaccompanied minors, told the New York Times in June. According to government data, border agents apprehended over 94,897 people at the southwest border in June, including 7,378 unaccompanied children. This spike in children traveling alone – 45% more than the same month last year – purportedly created such a “tremendous strain” on ORR’s resources that the agency ordered a halt to all educational, legal, and recreational programs for the children in its custody. At current rates, one conservative analyst predicted a “worst case scenario” in which slightly more than a million people will seek entry to the United States by the end of 2019.
But these so-called historic numbers are not all that historic. As recently as 2001, 1.2 million people arrived at the southwest border, and 1.6 million the year before that. Claims about an uncontrolled rise in unaccompanied minors can be similarly misleading. As Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, the legal director of immigration advocacy at the Legal Aid Justice Center explained to me, under the government’s current interpretation of immigration law, a child traveling with any adult other than a biological parent is considered to be “unaccompanied.” Many children arrive with dedicated caregivers (adult siblings, aunts or uncles, and so on) and find themselves alone in ORR’s overtaxed facilities.
Ellis Island was benign by comparison, though the number and age distribution of people who passed through its gates closely resembled the number now crossing our southern border. From 1905-1914 the station processed about 764,000 people a year, and over a million newcomers in 1907 alone. They presented themselves in much the same way that the current arrivals do: empty-handed in flight from something terrible, or in search of something better.
All told, the 12 million or so individuals who arrived as immigrants on Ellis experienced a bureaucracy that was bewildering but never punitive. They were herded and tagged, inspected and interrogated, but after a period of two to five hours the vast majority were free to enter the United States.
What this history of Ellis Island makes clear is that the contemporary failure to treat immigrants humanely is not the result of a demographic emergency but a policy decision, one every bit as tangible as the architecture of the border stations themselves, which are either designed to process immigrants or not to. Those on Ellis Island were constructed not to detain or reject immigrants but to sort them. The purpose was inclusion, derived from a national decision to admit new laborers and citizens to contribute to the industrial economy. Today’s immigration centers are an archipelago of border stations, detention sites, and tent facilities whose focus is deterrence. They are elements of a national border being put to unacceptable use as the result of a nativist moment of fear – fear of exhausted resources, of dangerous “outsiders,” and others. They are underfunded and inhumane because they are designed to be.
Their danger is not only the toll they take on immigrants, but the message they communicate about the authority of the government and its expectations of future citizens. The buildings at Ellis Island stand out grandly against the harbor. Inside, waiting immigrants watched their peers undergo the inspections in public. This staging compelled everyone present to witness the power of American law. One of my professors, Dr. Amy Fairchild, was an especially close observer of the purpose of the public sorting and inspection. “It was an expression of authority that was most fully recognized when the immigrant was not turned away,” she noted.
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I used to remind my groups that the clamor of voices, the smell of steerage, and the toll of exhaustion made Ellis Island a trying place. They liked to hear these details, which could be unpleasant, at times dehumanizing, but never approached the inhumanity of today’s southern border. What details will be remembered from the present system? What will the oral histories say? I shudder to think.