Interestingly, in the current era of anti-immigration hysteria, the Statue of Liberty and the National Museum of Immigration on Ellis Island are being overwhelmed by tourists.
There are so many visitors that the authorities, the National Park Service, are preparing to eliminate organized visits.
Specifically, 4.5 million tourists visit each year.
(By comparison, 7.2 million tourists visited the Parthenon this year. In 2018, New York was visited by 65.2 million tourists compared to 26 million who visited Athens in 2015.)
The symbolism of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island is of course powerful and international.
From Ellis Island, a tiny islet off the port of New York, 12 million migrants – almost all from Europe, mainly from the North – entered America during its years of operation, between 1892 and 1954.
It was also known as the “island of tears” because among those who arrived after the long transatlantic journey, 2% of them were denied entry to the country.
They were turned back either because they had some kind of illness or because they did not have the required entry fee of $18 ($564.26 at today’s prices).
This money was a guarantee the United States required to be sure the immigrants would not be living at the expense of the State.
Among the immigrants who passed from there were about 600,000 Greeks.
Thus, many people today visit the museum archives at Ellis Island and find the names of their relatives.
It is difficult for us younger immigrants to understand the inhumane conditions of the migrant ships, the palpitations the new arrivals suffered at Ellis Island, and the terrible work conditions that many times awaited them.
Yet they did not give up and return to the lives they knew. How could they? There were the loans they took out to buy their ticket to pay off, they had sisters to be married, and families to support back home.
What remained – what little was left – they kept for themselves.
Of course, the Greek immigrants were not alone living in miserable conditions, but our Greek forebears did have to endure them.
And it was not that the locals, many of whom had come as migrants before them, attacked only the Greeks with slogans similar to the ones heard today.
But the Greeks were attacked – that is why AHEPA was established in 1922.
This country had – and has – an interesting, ambivalent relationship with immigration: although it is made up of immigrants and their descendants and while some of our greatest entrepreneurs and scientists were – and are – Immigrants, still, the country turns against them.
Hence, we witness the abhorrent, hysterical exploitation of the immigration issue for political gain – but it is not a new phenomenon. It has deep roots in American history.
Nevertheless, now, just like in the past, this hysteria will pass.
Meanwhile, visit the Statue of Liberty and read the famous and moving poem of Emma Lazarus that is engraved on it, which begins:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Was this not always the essence of the greatness of America?