I Was Robbed At Ellis Island
Give Me A Refund (Reparation)


April 30, 2001 

With overwhelming demand, the American Family Immigration History Center at Ellis Island opened its electronic doors this past week.  Overwhelming might be an understated adjective to describe the impossibility of fighting the e-queue for entry into this fascinating website. 

For those of you who haven’t yet visited the site or are totally unfamiliar with it, here is the official drill:

The American Family Immigration History Center 

Located in the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and on the World Wide Web, the American Family Immigration History Center (AFIHC) allows visitors to explore the extraordinary collection of immigrant arrival records stored in the Ellis Island Archives.

Searching our archives can help inform your own family's story--inspiring a new sense of your place in the larger story of American immigration.

The Ellis Island Archives 

More than 22 million passengers and members of ships' crews entered the United States through Ellis Island and the Port of New York between 1892 and 1924. Information about each person was written down in ships' passenger lists, known as "manifests." Manifests were used to examine immigrants upon arrival in the United States.

Now you can search these millions of records for information on individual Ellis Island passengers.

After 48 hours of sporadic persistence I finally gained entry at 2:30 a.m. .  It was worth the effort. 

After only a few attempts, I located the records for my paternal grandparents.  For the first time in my life, I finally knew where they departed from, the date of their entry into the U.S. and, most fascinating of all, the names, ethnicities, ages and birthplaces of the hundreds of other hopeful immigrants who departed with them for the New World on the Saxonia sailing from Liverpool England. 

But there weren’t many surprises.  The names of their “shipmates” read like a “whose who” in any contemporary college student directory.  And there’s the rub; at the time of their immigration those funny last names must have scared the hell out of established Americans.  Today, many of those funny last names are not only established, but prominent Americans. 

I am awestruck by the reality of this turn-of-the-century immigration wave.  Millions of people with little or no command of the English language and nothing more than the clothes on their backs and hope for a better life sailing under the watchful gaze of the Statue of Liberty.  It dwarfs the grandeur of watching the Apollo crew walk on the surface of the moon. 

For just one second remove your butt from the cushion of your Lazy-Boy and transport yourself to another time and place.  Imagine that you are a teenager with no money, little formal education, no knowledge of the English language, no idea about American culture and you are about to disembark in New York City with no place to go and no government assistance to help you get there.  Yeah, right! 

This was, in some measure, the reality for millions of individuals of Irish, German, Russian, Polish, Middle Eastern, Italian, Asian and many other ethnicities.  Add to this that within each of these ethnic groupings there was a plethora of different, and often conflicting, religious and social beliefs.  And, they were all crammed into the hulls of, at least by today’s standards, unsafe, uncomfortable and filthy ships (these ships were not “Melting Pots” that Emril would have in his kitchen).   

It’s amazing they didn’t kill each other before reaching New York Harbor.  In an act of divine grace, or incredible common sense, they coexisted and even cooperated (God forbid!).   

I can vividly remember my grandfather telling me that landing on Ellis Island was one of his life’s happiest moments.  The “cattle lines” of humanity being funneled left and right while officious bureaucrats in uniforms changed first names into surnames and pinned identification tags on confused souls being cast into quarantine.  But he and the millions of other “Islanders” were free; free to make of their lives whatever they wished without being threatened because of their religions, customs or social positions.  And to think I bitched about my freshman year dorm room’s décor. 

What was it about this turn-of-the-century immigration wave that made these people so unique?  How was it that they came to America with so little and created so much?  In asking the question of how did they do so well by their families and future generations, perhaps I have answered the question. 

The operative word is family.  These were people who created and nurtured their families and, in doing so, nurtured this country.  They had limited expectations yet, unlimited hope. 

After leaving Ellis Island, my grandfather’s entry-level employment into the U.S. was as a dishwasher in a greasy-spoon luncheonette.  Again, in some measure, this was a common experience with his contemporaries.  They all hit the ground running for a job because employment equaled the housing and food necessary to create and care for their families. 

With sublime humility and some embarrassment I recall my grandfather’s reminiscences about the luncheonette owner screaming at him, as if an overlord, for breaking a cheap saucer.  Or, the tales about being turned away from apartment after apartment because the landlord couldn’t understand him.  These recollections humble me because, in my candid moments, I doubt if I measure up to the character of my grandfather and I’m embarrassed for the same reason. 

What he laughed off as a challenge and learning experience, enraged me as an insult to my perception of entitlement.  But, as I mature, I’m hopefully learning the difference between creating something and having it given to you.  The former creates character and independence while the latter develops a dependency on the accomplishments of others. 

There was no rocket science to the secret of success for my grandparents and their peers.  Actually it was quite simple, especially since they made the sacrifices.  Paramount among virtues was securing employment.  The fruits of one’s labor were rarely squandered.  They worked, provided true necessities and created capital (Saved). 

Within 5 years of their arrival in New York Harbor life in America was looking pretty good for my family (no thanks to me since I was still a far distant bundle of joy).  Granddad worked hard, brought his younger brother to America, founded a small contracting company and bought a 3-family house; older brother living on the first floor, younger brother and family on the second and the third floor was the domain of an income producing tenant.   

This all sounds so easy to me but I wasn’t the one making the sacrifices for the future.  Let’s step back in time and peek at their lifestyle. 

There were work clothes and a single suit for Sundays and special occasions.  No Nikes and Tommy Hilfiger wardrobes for them.  There was a garden in the backyard or, more precisely, most of the backyard was a garden.  Despite the fact that they lived in a very dense urban setting where the “soil” was mostly brownish-red gravel, the garden provided them with fresh and canned vegetables throughout the year.   

Each floor of the 3-family had one bathroom, but there was a shower in the basement because when you came home from work you were too dirty to use the “upstairs bath”.  Most of the cooking and meals were shared and enjoyed communally between my grandfather’s and his brother’s families.  And speaking of sharing, there was a single family station wagon that served as a work vehicle by weekday and a go-to-church vehicle on weekends.  Everything was always clean and cared for.  When something broke it was fixed rather than replaced.  

Most poignant in my memory is the echo of my grandfather’s wisdom, “Don’t get in trouble and work hard in school.  Make your Family proud.” 

America and its immigrants made a contract at Ellis Island.  Obey the laws, work hard, take good care of your family, practice thrift, coexist, cooperate and become an American.  In return, all the fruits of American citizenship are yours and you become truly free.  And they did and did and did. 

Viewing the landscape of contemporary America, leads me to conclude that the descendants of those immigrants deserve a refund.  Nowhere in that contract did it mention rampant lawlessness, the mandate to coddle criminals, the Balkanization of America into separate spheres of “diversity”, the need to support successive generations of people who think that work is not a virtue, the blaming of those who attend school for the ignorance of those who don’t, the responsibility of those who care for their families for the problems of those who can’t spell family, the trashing of American values or the move to “one world government”. 

If the term “refund” is not politically correct enough to deserve attention, then I demand reparation payments to the descendants of all those immigrants who were tricked into believing that admission to America carried with it the responsibilities of being a good citizen.  As the ships slid into New York Harbor it was the responsibility of the U.S. to inform those new immigrants that, in lieu of work and sacrifice, they could spend their entire lives in an entitlement orgy of irresponsibility by blaming history, the system and everybody else for woes of their own making. 

Geez…I can hear my Grandfather telling me to quit my whining and get back to work.  I’ll see you on the next journey.  


return to 2000 - 2001 archives

home - columns - images - bio - contact - links

dansargis.org is proudly listed as a townhall.com RightPage

All content copyright 2000 - 2025 dansargis.org