How a boatload of tourists renewed my hope.
I stood among hundreds of people, sons and daughters of immigrants, on the ferry cruising round the Statue of Liberty on a sunny, New York day.
Grown men stared at the statue, transfixed.
Nearly everyone grasped their phones and snapped away.
Further on, we disembarked on Ellis Island, looking around curiously as we walked toward the colossal brick receiving hall. All around me were the faces of humanity: brown, black, olive-toned, fair and freckled. Some were wrapped in long, colorful saris, or hid their hair under hijabs. A few men dressed up, donning an oversized jacket over a collared shirt. Others dressed casually, in jeans and t-shirts.
We had come to see the place where millions of immigrants first landed, fleeing poverty and oppression where they were born.
Asians, Hindus, Mexicans, Russians, English, Irish — all now Americans paying respect to the symbols of freedom at the gateway to New York.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
Thirty years before Emma Lazarus wrote those words in 1883, New York was different. Violence against Irish Catholic and German immigrants who arrived in growing numbers was whipped up by followers of the Know Nothing Party.
During its decade-long ride, voters elected Know-Nothing party members to Congress and to the governor’s seat in eight states. Then their movement lost its steam, its energy drained by the Civil War.
Chinese immigrants became the next target of xenophobic fever, primarily on the West Coast where angry mobs attacked and murdered them. By the 20th-century Southern Europeans, especially Italians, were the new unwanted, labeled socialist and mafia. A political cartoonist likened them to rats.
Still people came. Surviving discrimination and unspeakable hardships, people of all nationalities prospered in America and led us to this spring day in 2018 when their descendants stood in line for two hours for the chance to see Lady Liberty’s torch held high.
Women in saris pushed strollers through the cavernous hall where exhausted immigrants once waited.
People speaking languages I had never heard before pointed at photographs of women and children sewing clothing in their cramped tenement apartments. Did the pinched faces remind them of their grandmothers and the sacrifices they made long ago?
I knew one of my great aunts, an Irish immigrant, had run a bar on the Lower East Side more than 100 years ago. Just like those around me, I was a child of immigrants to America and these strangers were my peeps.
Before I headed to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the fevered anti-immigrant rhetoric rising across America had weighed heavily on me. But remembering that we had survived anti-immigrant movements many times in the past two centuries, gave me hope. We are still a nation of immigrants and in that may lie our salvation.