Ellis Island and Today's Immigrants

IT'S easy to be sentimental about Ellis Island, the cluster of buildings in New York Harbor where, in sight of the Statute of Liberty, millions of European immigrants were processed into the United States in the 1890s and the early decades of this century. About 100 million Americans today are descended from those uncertain but hopeful people, many of them desperately poor, who surged out of ships to be queried and inspected before being allowed to enter their new homeland. Ellis Island bespeaks both the magnanimity of the US and the courage and resourcefulness of those who came to pursue the American dream. It is fitting that the magnificently restored facility today is being opened to the public as a monument and museum to America's immigrant legacy.

But is our Ellis Island nostalgia truly a tribute to American diversity, or to American homogeneity? The modern descendants of those Poles and Slovaks, Greeks and Italians, Austrians and Bavarians have much in common. Overwhelmingly white, Christian, and middle class, their respective roots are preserved only in a few colorful traditions and annual ethnic-day parades. The hyphens in their lineage, though proudly recalled, are retained more as artifacts than as defining characteristics.

Would America have similarly honored these newcomers 70 years ago - when, alien to the dominant culture, speaking little English, they huddled in cultural ghettos and took low-paying jobs? Is it only now, when those immigrant strains have melded into the common culture, that we can appreciate the energy, diversity, and creativity the arrivals brought to these shores?

These questions are worth pondering in conjunction with the Ellis Island ceremonies, for the tributes to opportunity-seekers of yesteryear come in the midst of a new wave of immigration - one greatly different from preceding ones. Today only about 10 percent of US immigrants are white Europeans. Instead, the newcomers are predominantly Hispanic and Asian. Their points of entry are Miami, Brownsville, and Los Angeles.

Although many Americans accept the vast influx of non-Europeans, others voice concern. Their worries are often expressed in economic terms - there aren't enough jobs, or poor immigrants from Mexico and Central America will strain social services - but one also detects underlying fears that the new immigrants will alter the fundamental character - and color - of American society.

In short, much of the current commentary on America's immigration ``problem'' has a nativist, sometimes even racist tinge. This has to be guarded against.

Yes, hard questions must be asked about US immigration policy - having to do, for instance, with the mix of skilled versus unskilled people allowed in. America's immigration policy has to be wisely thought out and effectively managed.

But, as Americans' attitude toward Ellis Island attests, the nation's experience with immigration has been beneficial. Why should we think the era of useful immigration is past, and that the effects of future immigration are problematic, even harmful?

As this dynamic country becomes even more vibrant thanks in large measure to the skills, enthusiasm, and gratitude of current and future immigrants, we may want to erect monuments to such contributors in Miami, Brownsville, and Los Angeles.

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