Visiting Lady Liberty, welcomer of immigrants
by Rob Tiller
We’ve established a temporary base in Jersey City in an Airbnb near our new granddaughter, and are starting to feel less like aliens. Traffic is more intense than we’re used to, and people beep their horns a lot more, but it has its good points. One of those is Liberty Park, which is about a mile from us, and has a great view across the harbor of lower Manhattan and the back of the Statue of Liberty.
Despite years of living in and visiting New York City, we’d never taken the ferry out to visit Lady Liberty or Ellis Island. We picked a clear, mild day last week, bought tickets, waited on line, cleared security (very like an airport), and set sail. There was a sweet breeze, and fluffy clouds.
Immigration to the U.S. peaked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Ellis Island was the primary intake spot. Millions of immigrants from Europe and elsewhere went through its procedures and began new lives in the states. The large complex of buildings has been partially restored to serve as the National Museum of Immigration.
It was moving to be where so many brave and hopeful people had landed with their dreams. We also learned a lot from the exhibits about the various national groups who eventually became the people of the United States.
Most of the exhibits required some reading, but it was worth it. The curators had made a real effort to give the context of some of the sad realities of our past, including slavery, war with native peoples, and exploitation of workers. We also learned about some of the desperate conditions that led millions of Europeans and others to take their chances in America, including crop failures, discrimination, and overpopulation.
At the same time, there were great success stories, as many immigrants prospered and built a foundation for our prosperity. We were surprised to learn that the largest single group of immigrants prior to 1900 was Germans, followed by Irish. The people known as Pennsylvania Dutch were not Dutch, but rather Deutsch (German). The melting pot apparently melted some letters.
Part of the story of American immigration, in addition to the acceptance and assimilation of millions of immigrants, was constant hostility to immigration. In the 19th and 20th centuries, large political movements organized around the idea that immigrants were threatening to destroy existing American culture.
Panic over a takeover by people with different complexions, languages, and customs, is of course very much with us today. That sort of fear seems to be partly responsible for the Trumpist movement. It was reassuring, in a way, to find that this mass delusion has been around in some form for the last couple of centuries. We got through it then, so perhaps we can do so now.
My main impression of the Statue of Liberty was: she’s big! From base to the tip of her torch, 305 feet. I also learned why she’s green: her copper layer reacted with oxygen and other chemicals in the air, and the resulting oxidation forms a green patina.
Her island had some nice trees and pleasant sidewalks, but otherwise she looked as expected. Even though she’s been a bit over exposed, it was good to see her, and to keep hoping we can hold on to the values of freedom and compassion that she symbolizes.