Ellis Island vs. the Mexican Border

Ellis Island

Megan Wolff is a historian and administrator at the DeWitt Wallace Institute for the History of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College.  She was also an Ellis Island tour guide.  Over at CNN, she compares the immigrant experience at Ellis Island with present-day immigrants at the border.  It is worth a read.  Here is a taste:

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.

Read the entire piece here.

One thought on “Ellis Island vs. the Mexican Border

  1. Now THIS is what history is supposed to be for. Very illuminating.

    Every time conservatives defend the horrific policy of concentration camps at the border as being a result of accident or overwhelmed resources, the facts show that it’s actually the result of careful and deliberate policy choice. You can’t argue with facts like these, though I’m sure Trump’s sycophants and blind apologists will try to, probably with their usual resort to whataboutism.

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