Anna Segla arrived at Ellis Island in 1910. She was eighteen years old and hailed from Hungary. As she went through the process of inspection, doctors noted she had curvature of the spine and deformity of the chest. She was labelled “a dwarf” whose physical defects would “prevent Anna from gaining meaningful employment in America.”
Anna had an aunt and uncle living in Connecticut. They had no children and were ready to take her in. Anna appealed the decision to return her to Hungary; her aunt and uncle offered to post bond for her release as her case made its way through the appeal process. During her two week detention on the island, Anna wrote a letter on her own behalf. “I beg to say that the hunchback on me never interfered with my ability to earn my living as I always worked the hardest housework and I am able to work the same in the future,” she stated. “I pray Your Honor permit me to land in the United States.” Her request was refused and she was deported.*
“Complex” and “contradictory” … That’s how author Vincent Cannato describes America’s ideas and policies with regard to immigration, specifically referring to the history of Ellis Island. “Immigration” might be seen not only as how we welcome the stranger at the front door; it also has to be considered from the standpoint of the process of assimilation.
What is the on-going story of America’s minorities? In 1964, Malcolm X delivered one of his more famous and memorable speeches. He spoke of the difference between “legal citizenship” and “social citizenship”.
“I’m not going to sit at your table and watch you eat,” he said, “with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner…Being here in America doesn’t make you an American. Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American. If birth made you an American … you wouldn’t be faced with civil-rights filibustering in Washington, D.C… I am a victim of this American system … I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.**
From young Malcolm X’s perspective “democracy” was “nothing but disguised hypocrisy.”
The roiling disputes as to who should be kept out, who should be let in, and what to do with folks once they are here are as much a part of our nation’s history as they are part of the current presidential politicking. From the 1798 “Alien and Sedition Acts” to Donald Trump’s determination to build a wall spanning the border with Mexico; from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act to the sentiment that all Muslims should be prevented from entering the US in 2016, our current and past track record suggests that no one ever really believed “all men are created equal”.
Ellis Island’s original use was as a place to hang pirates. Cannato tells of hordes of New Yorkers traveling out by boat to watch the spectacle. The bodies of the condemned deceased would be left on the gibbet for a time with the hope that such exposure would prove to be a deterrent to others.
To be left hanging … Is that what it feels like to the millions of refugees who will never leave the camps? Is that a working metaphor for the youth and children who won’t ever see life beyond the camp walls and fences? The nations of the world are faced with the profound challenge of people on the run – and some feel they have to run or stand up and fight right there – in the places they call “home”, struggling not only for “legal citizenship”, but for the social and economic prerogatives that are supposed to accompany that citizenship.
We all wait to hear what the politicians will say. The more important question is what will we as citizens DO? First UMC Burlington is spending the month of January exploring together what it means to be a “refugee”, and what we might be called to do. There are people at the gate hoping beyond hope to get in; and then there are those who are here already, wondering if they will ever be given not just the seat and place setting, but some real food to enjoy. How will we as Christians respond? Our faithfulness is hanging in the balance.
*This story is from Vincent Cannato’s book, “American Passage: The History of Ellis Island.”
**This quote is taken from Zareena Grewal’s, “Islam is a Foreign Country”