breakthrough beat: Our journey through the immigration system at Ellis Island

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From Breakthrough’s media intern, Priya Shah:

After covering the need for immigration reform in our blog posts, campaigns, and videos, we decided to take a field trip through immigration history and the system, as it stood many years ago.  On Wednesday, Breakthrough’s staff took a field trip to the Statue of Liberty and to Ellis Island.  See our U.S. office staff picture here:

The ferry circled us around Liberty Island before we landed at the footsteps of historical Lady Liberty. Her triumphant and glorious features made our 20-minute voyage feel victorious. To the immigrants of the past, her strength signaled a new life in a new country but also relief from making the journey on boats filled with diseases that spread, caused illness and even death.  Her powerful stance matched with the burning torch lends visitors from both eras a glorious sense of arrival. We were soon reminded that the real immigration adventure was still pending, and it was not so glorious.

We took the next ferry to the museum at Ellis Island, which let us journey through the full immigration experience – one that meant freedom and a new life, but also exhaustion and harsh rejections.   New immigrants faced harsh tests like mental evaluations to pass through.  Many were separated from their families, placed in detention for years, and mistreated and abused just like today.

The museum showed that the injustices confronting immigrants have spanned all throughout history and that reform has never effectively made progress since the beginning. The issues of race and social status, discrimination against mental disabilities, and various forms of reasonable suspicion reappeared before me on the walls which showcased centuries-old artifacts and histograms. For example, Mark Lyttle born and raised in North Carolina, who was bipolar and deported to Mexico, reminded me of the museum’s room showing mentally-ill detained immigrants. The fact that officers assumed that individuals were mentally handicapped, a public cost, or a criminal, shows how backwards today’s Arizonan motion for “reasonable assumption” is.

The preservation of Ellis Island succeeds in showing us that, for centuries, the people in our immigration system have never received the proper attention and rights they desperately needed.

Visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island if you are a New Yorker who has never been, or if you are making a trip to NYC anytime soon.  Also, visit Restore Fairness to learn how the lack of immigration reform affects the lives of individuals and take action.

July 30, 2010 by Priya
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