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Ellis Island versus Lampedusa

Ellis Island versus Lampedusa

Jerry Krase (January 30, 2016)
Jerry Krase
I took this photo at the Norwegian Day Parade in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge neighborhood in May 2008. They are all "Americans" even if they might not like apple pie.

Comparing their current immigration policies with those of the United States of America from more than a century ago can be a valuable learning experience for Italy and the European Union, but only if they look behind elegant curtain of self-congratulatory myths.


I agree almost totally with informed observations on Italy's and Europe's inane immigration and refugee policies.  Old, new as well as future Europeans could greatly benefit by transforming Lampadusa, the accidental Mediterranean entrepot for desperate people, into a modern version of America’s venerable Ellis Island. However, some cautions must be noted. While many think that America's immigration policy was an example of cool-headed "social engineering," they are wrong. As is true of the current European Union policies, those of the United States were frantic attempts to manage the human deluge of 1880-1920. It was also a rather feeble try at filtering out those who might ideologically, culturally, and, yes, "genetically" threaten the Nation. During its busiest years Ellis Island processed three to four thousand souls per day or about one million per year. The United Nations estimates that about the same number are loudly knocking on Europe’s door today.  

Rather than being a warm and fuzzy welcome mat, Ellis Island was a ice cold late Victorian scientific sorting machine. The only invitations to American offered to the lowly steerage passengers were secret and illegal ones from labor contractors and, if people were lucky, friends and relatives here who had to swear they would take care of them through the guaranteed bad times. America was on the verge of economic greatness and in order to grow and prosper Big Business and Big Industry needed a huge labor pool. It was that demand for desparate workers that trumped Nativist Xenophobia and the antagonism of a nascent and increasingly militant organized labor movement. As was true of the previous four miserable centuries of the African slave trade, it was the work and not the worker that was welcomed from their teeming shores.

The poet in me thinks of these competing sentiments as variations, such as mine below, on the theme of Emma Lazarus’ 1883 sonnet “New Colossus” that is engraved on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island that lies a stone’s throw from Ellis Island. It is a more honest expression of our grand narrative of American Exceptionalism

“… Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I need cheap labor and low wages

 inside the Golden Door!”

The lesson to be learned about the success of what people mistakenly regard as the benevolent American "Melting Pot" has less to do with good intentions than with accidentally good outcomes. From Ellis Island twelve million bodies were sent elsewhere. Many had no clear idea where they were going but, like the shores of Lampadusa, “here” was better than “there.”
               I have written is several places about the Coney Island Avenue Bus I often take to Brooklyn College. In a Voice of American Program I called it a “Magical Bus.” 
It begins its journey in an almost totally white upper middle class neighborhood and, most of the time, slowly, moves through Afro-American, Caribbean, Mexican, Pakistani, Orthodox Jewish, and Chinese neighborhoods, ending in a Russian/Ukrainian section called “Little Odessa.” As different, mostly “New American” passengers embark and disembark along the route, Blacks and Whites, Latinos and Anglos, Jews and Muslims seldom cross ethnic lines by speaking or displaying signs of mutual recognition. Frankly speaking, I don’t think they like each other very much.

American society is like this bus. From the last Great Immigration Wave that passed through Ellis Island to the present, America has worked despite its unnatural diversity. I works because it has unconsciously been structured in such a way that in order for immigrants to get what they want -- prosperity, education, a decent place to live, safety and security -- they must cooperate with people with whom they are different; even people they don’t like and who don’t like them. If there is a conflict between the passengers on that magical bus, and people don’t cooperate, they’re not going to get where they want to go. Europeans think America’s Melting Pot works by eliminating differences. On the contrary, America’s immigrants learn that even though they may not be welcome, they can learn how to get to their destination without giving up everything they brought with them from home.

For many years I have served as a resource for the U.S. State Department’s International Visitors Program. One of my contributions has been giving tours of Brooklyn neighborhoods that display the comparative marvels of American diversity and, not incidentally, tolerance and cooperation among ethnic groups that could be a model for Europe.  On one occasion I took a group of junior diplomats from emerging Eastern and Central European democracies (Georgia, Romania, and Ukraine if I remember correctly) on a “Magical Bus” tour.  Of course they were suitably impressed by the kaleidoscopic scenes inside and outside the bus but one incident was most instructive. I needed to find out what was the last stop in order for them to transfer to a subway train for their return to Manhattan. So I asked a female passenger. She didn’t speak English and I recognized the Russian accent. I told my guests, all of whom spoke Russian, and one went forward to get directions. When he returned he seemed puzzled. He said, “she speaks no English, but told me she was an “American.”

The example of this Russian-American women is a bit extreme. Most hyphenated-Americans melt at least to the extent of adopting, and adapting, some common values of language and culture. It is not necessary for a (barely) Roman Catholic Sicilian-Ruthenian (like me) to become a White Anglo Saxon Protestant. To get ahead, it is enough to merely know how to speak and act like one when necessary.

As everyone knows, Brooklyn is not America where more than a third of its two and a half million residents are foreign-born. In the whole of the USA immigrants make up about an eighth of the total population. Also, although “minorities” comprise more than one-third of the nation they are not evenly distributed across the country but concentrate along the periphery of the continental United States. Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing group, with 45.5 million persons (15% of the population). Blacks are second, with 40.7 million (13.5 %), followed by the second fastest-growing, Asians, at 15.2 million (5%). In 2008, the US Census Bureau predicted that by 2042, more than half of the population would be minorities, with much due to immigration.

Despite, or perhaps because, of its historic diversity American remains intolerant. Today it is Latinos and Muslims rather than Italians and Jews who receive the most unwanted attention. Although not yet as menacing as France’s National Front, Germany’s PERGIDA, Greece’s Golden Dawn, or Italy’s Northern League, “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” has its own ugly array of white supremacists and antigovernment militias. Even major Presidential candidates of the once moderately conservative Republican Party call for building high walls patrolled by armed guards to keep out Latinos and deporting hundreds of thousands undocumented workers who for decades have contributed mightily to our economy; along with their “Dreamer” children.

Most people connect American tolerance to its Christian foundations. Perhaps its intolerance comes from the same source. Pew Research Center polls show that 43 percent of Americans believed that “Islam does not teach respect for the beliefs of non-Muslims” and 46 percent believe “Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers.” The son of America’s Christian (?) Evangelical icon Billy Graham tells his flock that it is a “religion of hatred” and “war.” As to comparative bigotry, Pew Global Attitudes Survey in 2014 found 27 percent of people in Britain, 27 percent in France, 33 percent in Germany, 53 percent in Greece, and 63 percent in Italy have unfavorable feelings towards Muslims in general. Republican Presidential Candidate "The Donald" Trump would do as well in Europe with his call for a "complete shutdown" of entry for Muslims.
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It seems obvious to me that for immigrants on both sides of the Atlantic there is a big difference between getting through the “Golden Door” and being inside the house. Despite, or perhaps because, of its historic diversity America remains benevolently intolerant. After next year's United States Presdiential election, however, I hope I won't have to revise this essay.



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