A bit of wisdom from the past floated up through my mind as I viewed a display of the Ellis Island Immigrant Dining Room:
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
We were all told that growing up. For the first day of school, the first interview. Because if you blow it, it’s often very hard to make a comeback.
All through our lives, how we experience something at the very beginning: a first conversation, a first kiss or a first flight, the initial encounter. How it felt has great staying power in our memory, coloring everything that comes after.
Our ongoing feeling about remembering something, no matter how long ago it took place, can make us feel wonderful again, in the case of the kiss, perhaps. Or fearful and resistant, in the case of a scary first flight.
We might get over our fear of flying and the kiss might have led to betrayal. But that first impression is imprinted on us forever. It shapes our beliefs around trust and faith. We also learn that others often fail to make an effort. Memory is long on disillusionment.
What does this have to do with the immigrant experience?
A lot of attention is paid on what is happening in the immigrant’s country of origin and what happens once he or she is living here. So much is commented on in terms of how much of a drain on society undocumented immigrants are. Others talk about how vital and rich their contributions are to our culture. The “crisis at the border” has us riveted, regardless of viewpoint. So much noise.
My visit to Ellis Island felt like hitting a reset button. It allowed me to narrow attention solely on what happened to an immigrant on his or her first day in America one hundred years ago, when my own ancestors arrived.
As we all know, most people emigrating to the United States were and are leaving something undesirable behind – poverty, political turmoil, religious persecution, social limitations – and with a hope that the new world will mean “better world.”
Imagine being on a several weeks long voyage, sleeping in cramped conditions, getting very little real sleep, worrying about shipwreck, not being able to eat because seasickness overtakes you, feeling sad over recently said final “goodbyes” to your family, worrying about what’s coming.
The day of arrival finally comes: The Statue of Liberty appears like a shining goddess of strength, which gave the millions who saw her courage and renewed hope. (Talk about a first good impression). Then followed the disembarking, the lines, the waiting, the medical exams, the questions not easily understood, and more waiting.
Most immigrants spent only one day on Ellis Island before they were met by loved ones, or boarded trains to meet loved ones. Others were quarantined. Some were put on boats to go back. (Amazing but true: only 2 percent of the total).
But there was one experience that every single person who passed through Ellis Island shared: Sitting down to eat.
Of the many fascinating artifacts that are displayed at Ellis Island, the items and photographs I viewed that stood out above all the others for me were the ones that showed this simple but hugely significant part of an immigrant’s first day in America.
Take a good look at this menu list. Although new American foods were also offered, like donuts and hotdogs, many of these items would have had instant appeal to Italians or Germans or Polish. How do you think this would have made a newly arrived immigrant feel? Prosciutto! Yes, I know what that is. I can eat.
What do you see in this photo of the dining room? I see china and silver. Take a close look at this photo of the actual serving pieces. This is not for the first-class passengers, by the way. See that the image of Ellis Island is on the bowl as are the initials of the Ellis Island Food Contractor. He’s not a nameless entity.
Sitting down with a thousand of your fellow immigrants to a meal served on fine china after the horrendous meals offered in steerage must have felt luxurious.
Modern marketing didn’t exist then, but it sure feels like a lot of thought went into designing how it was done. Or maybe not. Maybe it began with a belief that these “tired, poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” to quote Emma Lazarus, deserved to be treated well on their first day in America.
The vast majority of the millions of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island ended up having a pretty good first day.
I have heard many stories from the descendants of immigrant ancestors who came through Ellis Island, stories that mostly have one underlying theme: how much those immigrants loved America. Despite the heartache, prejudice, unfair labor practices, tragedy and discrimination that occurred to them after leaving Ellis Island, there is mostly a huge sense of pride and devotion among them. Even when Italy was an enemy of the United States during World War II, Italian immigrants fought for this country with no reservations.
How does this happen? I believe that you can trace it back to that first day.
The desire to believe in something bigger than yourself and the desire to feel you belong are universal. When these powerful desires are met at the outset with a clear message that says, “Yes”, it’s human nature to want to hold on to that, to make it true for yourself.
Seeing the Statue of Liberty had to feel like a big YES. The beauty and grandeur of the architecture of Ellis Island: YES. The Registry Room has lots of windows where the waiting immigrant could still see Lady Liberty. There she is again. YES. If it was needed, excellent medical care was on hand – and the nurturing of stomachs that longed for home – all had to feel like a YES in the shadow of a looming NO.
When I wrote the story of my Italian immigrant family, I spent a lot of time “on Ellis Island” with them, trying to see through their eyes - because that threshold implanted a belief in my ancestors that was unshakeable about their dream of living in America.
First impressions, for better or worse, as we know, last.
Today, the arguments around how people enter the United States, the lack of any real workable system, the murky laws, the desire for things to be “fair,” and the impossibility of arriving at anything that will be “fair” to everyone has become a maze that leads nowhere. There is now the building of walls, separating families as a way to control things, disparaging whole groups of foreigners, throwing tear gas at those who believe their only way out is to come here here and are willing to risk everything. This is the “first day” reality of many of today’s immigrants seeking refuge in America. What are the long-range implications of that?
I find myself longing for a modern version of Ellis Island. We cannot replicate the place. We don’t have to design fine china. Immigrants do not arrive now on ships.
“Ellis Island” is a state of mind.
What if our “leaders” gave some thought to how a first experience should feel to today’s immigrant?
Can you imagine a congressional member of the immigration committee or a senator or our president starting off a meeting asking such a question?
What if it started with the premise that every person is deserving of respect and care when they come here, looking for shelter and a way to create a future for themselves and their children?
I’m not talking about the small percentage of those who come with criminality in their hearts, which should not drive the issue.
One also hears this argument from those who romanticize Ellis Island and their own upstanding ancestors: “But my grandparents came here legally!” Yes, they did. That’s because there was a workable system at Ellis Island and other US ports of entry. There were rules, pathways, order. One did not need to hire an immigration lawyer. Can you imagine any choice possible for those grandparents of ours if the system had not been so clearly set out for them?
This “first day” idea is not a solution, it is a question. It is a question that changes the conversation from how do we keep people out by intimidation and fear to one of building a model based on humanity and reaching hearts. We’ve done it before. It was called Ellis Island.
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