Through the Eyes of a Child
New York City has always been a port of entry for those immigrating to the United States. Even in the midst of the War Between the States, five ships docked carrying those hoping for a better life in the New World at least every three days. In the middle of a civil uprising, this country has always seemed to offer new hope.
Ellis Island, in Upper New York Bay, was the gateway for over 12 million immigrants to the U.S. as the United States’ busiest immigrant inspection station for over 60 years from 1892 until 1954. Ellis Island was opened January 1, 1892. Two years after its closing, a six-year-old child stepped onto American soil for the first time. The week-long journey across the Atlantic Ocean had been made on a personal troop carrier with several families sharing a room. Our young girl slept in one bunk bed with her two sisters while her mother slept in another. The men were in the enlisted quarters and slept in hammocks stacked three or four high. Rather than excitement, seasickness colored their days. The quest for freedom, though, was the ultimate prize because even a small child knows a life lived without fear is worth some discomfort.
It is an often overlooked advantage but those born in the United States are automatically considered American citizens. This is not true in many countries. Our young child had parents who had met during World War II in a relocation camp. She herself was born in a part of Germany controlled by Americans after WWII but her nationality lay with that of her parents, natives of Estonia. German was her language in public and at school while Estonian was spoken at home.
Her first impression upon arriving on US land was the strange language she heard spoken. “It sounded like bees buzzing”, she once remarked. Arriving at a time that saw many immigrants arriving, her school system assigned her one-on-one tutoring with a teacher to learn English. Her mother would pretend not to understand store clerks so her children would have to translate for her in an effort to facilitate them learning the language of their new home.
Our new arrival grew up in a community of immigrants and valued her ability to move around her neighborhood freely. While most of us have grown up never thinking twice about running down the street, many immigrants relish such an opportunity. They have lived in restricted environments and under fear of disobedience that often results in jail or death. Something as simple as walking to a corner store for many became a new adventure, something to be treasured and enjoyed.
An immigrant child is seldom allowed to forget they were not born here, though. Even in a community of immigrants, some discrimination can exist. We all, regardless of national origin, tend to fear the unknown and different. We tend to look for the two percent of our DNA that denotes ethnic differences instead of seeing the ninety-eight percent we have in common. Our young Estonian was called a Nazi even though her family had been victims of them rather than supporters. A neighbor’s son even threw a rock at her head in the name of patriotism.
When an immigrant becomes an American citizen, it is always day remembered. At a time when our young high school coed could not have enlisted or been asked to serve in a combat military setting, she was required to swear allegiance to “bear arms” to protect the United States of America. She became a US citizen one morning and later that day, graduated high school. Like most immigrants afforded the opportunity, she excelled in school and earned two college degrees. Over eighty percent of all US Nobel Prize winners have, in fact, been immigrants.
I once asked the heroine of our story today what she valued most about being an American. It was at the end of a long day and I had spent most of the day running errands. Her answer humbled me. Without hesitation, when asked the best thing about being an American she replied: “Freedom of movement.”
The country of Estonia was under Soviet rule after WWII for almost half a century and the parents in this story were uncertain of the life they faced if they returned home. They braved a transatlantic crossing with strangers to give their three young daughters a better life. Today the families seeking to cross our borders are doing the same exact thing.
It is indeed ironic that today, many immigrant children will be taken out of their cages to eat and then return to them to spend the rest of their day. They have been brought here just as our little girl was by their parents. Some are seeking opportunity, but most are braving the relocation in order to survive and give their children the same chance to survive. Hopefully, one day, these children will be able to say they experienced freedom of movement in a country that eventually welcomed them as it has everyone else who ever lived here.
We are a nation of immigrants. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants.” We should not forget that. Just like the little girl in our story, someone in our family underwent great struggle and trials to afford their children (who eventually became us) a chance at freedom. The American dream, Declaration of Independence, and US Constitution can be summed up in this quote from Senator Robert F Kennedy. “Our attitude towards immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal. We have always believed it possible for men and women who start at the bottom to rise as far as the talent and energy allow. Neither race nor place of birth should affect their chances.” Hopefully the children of today will continue to live and experience that belief.