Ellis Island's history casts today's border cruelty in an even harsher lightRoundup
tags: immigration, Border Control, Ellis Island, detention
Megan J. Wolff, Ph.D M.P.H., is an historian and administrator at the DeWitt Wallace Institute for the History of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College.
Now a national monument, Ellis Island hosts about 3 million visitors a year (combined with the Statue of Liberty park, 4 million), most having come to retrace the steps of those who might have been turned away, but weren't. They are seeking excitement, the romance of happy endings, and they are in the right place. By the time of its closure in 1954, Ellis Island had processed more than 12 million immigrants, and as a result, over 100 million Americans (more than 30% of the population) can trace an ancestor back through Ellis. In my experience, those who visited the place did so with a spirit that was both curious and eager.
I wager they would be far less eager to enact the scene currently taking place on the nation's southern border. These days, I listen with amazement as reports roll in, not because history is repeating itself but because it isn't. Conditions right now are dirtier, more dangerous, and significantly crueler than they ever were at Ellis Island -- most pointedly so where children are concerned.
Administrative documents and oral histories, many of them available at the Museum or in the National Archives, tell us that personnel at Ellis did what they could to insulate children from the hardships of passing through government custody. Experience in the present moment could not be more different. Children are now being singled out for treatment more negligent and harmful than anything tolerated on Ellis, conditions where even infants and toddlers have been deprived of nearly every necessity, including soap and water. Dr. Dolly Lucio Sevier, who was recently granted access to one facility, described listless, dirty, and diaperless babies, crowded conditions, and inadequate sanitation, water, and food. She stated, "The conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities."
Ordinary citizens and members of Congress took note. They demanded inspections, mounted protests. But when members of Congress visited one facility in Clint, Texas, two weeks ago, their experience was less than heartening. "It feels like a jail," said Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts. The lawmakers themselves were not treated much better. According to inmates, conditions had improved only in deference to the visit. Reporters who toured the facility received the same message. "The agency prepped for you guys," a CBP source with firsthand knowledge told CNN. "It's a never-ending cat and mouse game."
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