On a cold late December dawn at the height of World War II a steam ship from Europe sailed past the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. A thousand people stood shivering on the deck, as night turned to day, for the biggest event of their lives. And at last they could see it, and sailed right past it! The ship's captain sounded the deep resounding fog horn to add music to that most incredible moment. Nearly everyone on deck was a refugee, fleeing Hitler's Nazi genocide. As they saw the majestic Statue holding its torch aloft, people burst into tears; some falling to their knees in prayer. My mother stood among them, quietly crying, stoic and somber, speaking to no one; simply experiencing the moment that would change the rest of her life.
"AMERICA! OH MY GOD! AMERICA! SAFE! SAFE AT LAST!"
me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore."
After much maneuvering, the ship pulled into a dock at Ellis Island. As they slowly debarked, there were uniformed guards directing people to form lines. These were not the unformed brutes the passengers had been used to fearing in Europe. They did not have guns, they did not have vicious barking dogs; some of them were actually smiling as they directed people with hand gestures. "This way please, thank you....."
And slowly they entered the great reception hall, by the thousands. Some had been traveling for weeks, even months, across the face of Europe, on trains, hiding in the back of trucks, walking; and now at last, here they were. The stench of unwashed humanity was overwhelming! And the babble of languages echoed off the walls of the great hall. It was dizzying. And the lines were hours long.
Some, like my mother, had skipped the simple pre dawn breakfasts on the arriving ships, either because they were too excited or too sea sick to eat. She nearly fainted from starvation by the time it was her turn to step in front of the immigration agent. She handed him her tattered German passport with a big 'J' stamped over her photo. J for Jude, Jew, intended by German authorities as a disqualification for anything and everything. The agent looked at her questioningly, holding out his hand for further documents, arching an eyebrow to ask if she had anything more. She shook her head; that's all I have. No visa, no other papers. Nothing. She was an illegal immigrant. The agent understood; she was a refugee. He filled out a form from the information typed on her passport, and stamped it with a big rubber stamp: WOP, without papers. Gesturing and pointing, he directed her to a reception desk in another area of the hall, handing her the form and her precious passport.
After more hours of waiting, her name was called, and a German speaking clerk filled out more preliminary forms; explaining that her case will be considered while she will be held for a few weeks on Ellis Island in women's refugee quarters. It was dusk when she was directed into the next room. There, volunteers stood behind a table laden with cheese sandwiches each neatly wrapped in waxed paper. Two pieces of plain white bread with a slice of American cheese. That was her first dinner in America. After a day arriving in America, begun before dawn, a lousy cheese sandwich never tasted so good.
After two months, she was allowed to stay, given the equivalent of a resident alien green card, and on the cold February dawn of departure from Ellis Island, she was issued five cents to pay for the ferry ride across New York Harbor, past the Statue of Liberty, to begin her new life in freedom. Welcome to America. That nickel was the only welfare she ever received for the next sixty years of her life in America.
The rest of her family were murdered in the Auschwitz Nazi death camp; their ashes buried in mass graves beneath the snow and barbed wire in Eastern Europe. She raised me to be an American Patriot. "Nothing in the world is more precious than American Freedom," she taught me as a toddler. So, I volunteered and served for ten years during and after Vietnam, despite being gay.
Ellis Island is a museum now. I visited as a young adult, walking through the vast empty dusty great hall. Imagining what it had been like on the day my mother began her life in this county; filled with thousands of war weary bedraggled people, crying babies, fearful worry and the babble of a hundred languages. As I stood where she has waited all day on line, I nearly vomited imagining her anxiety. The grand front door of America is closed now, still guarded by the Statue that welcomed millions of refugees to the land of freedom.
Now, refugees arrive at the back door, in the American southwest; unsmiling uniformed armed guards with vicious dogs do not welcome them. Instead, they rip small terrified children from their parents arms and take them away, put them in cages, ship them across the country, give them away without paperwork, and loose track of them. Even after the government was court ordered to reunite all the children with their refugee parents, there are still some fifty thousand lost children, even today. Imagine their lonely Thanksgivings in this land of freedom ruled by a monster who ordered their lives destroyed. The monster who is President of the United States of America, whose theft of these nameless lost children is a crime against humanity.
The Nazis kept better track of their victims than this administration!
How many of these stolen lost children will become proud patriots, rather than bitter angry recipients of the bigoted reception that banished their parents but kept them in lifetime limbo.
Welcome to America; Welcome to the alternate universe.