My summer travels across southern Ontario and northeastern United States pointed out to me two trends that have shaped immigration to North America. First, that giving immigration officers absolute discretion to accept or reject immigrants at the point of entry can be fraught with risk, and, second, that newcomers change the landscape they come to just as much as they transform themselves.
Although we often talk about immigration as a rather recent phenomenon, a consequence of faster planes and ships, the movement of people across oceans and continents has been happening for a long time. Ellis Island in New York, a place that received 12 million newcomers at the turn of the 20th century, recreates the tension and the joy felt by those who had spent weeks on crowded ships crossing the Atlantic. On landing, their spirits lifted, but they were still part of a faceless horde waiting for admission. They had to pass what is today referred to as “border control.”
Walking into the main entrance of the French Renaissance-style building on Ellis Island, I felt a sense of promise and foreboding in equal measure. If I was just arriving off a boat, I could expect the queues to be endless. It often took days to clear people from the building’s cavernous halls. Baggage took up an entire floor — and not the luggage of today, but huge boxes and wicker baskets full of stuff that would probably not get past security in today’s times. Most of us, I suspect, would not have willingly suffered such a harrowing journey to meet an uncertain future.
Records show that 98 per cent of those who arrived at Ellis Island were let in. For them, it was the Isle of Hope, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. But then there was the other two per cent, for whom this was the Isle of Tears. They were turned away for health reasons — mainly trachoma or tuberculosis — or because the officer at the desk did not like the way they looked. You had to be socially, economically and morally fit to live in the United States and that decision was made in a matter of seconds. We know little about the luckless ones who were sent back, but, of course, celebrate the 100 million who today trace their roots to Ellis Island. It’s something we should bear in mind as we think about giving immigration officers greater discretion in the screening of new arrivals.
The other aspect of the immigrant story that struck me while I was travelling was how immigrants can change the landscape of their adopted land, often to the dismay of those who arrived prior. Even back in the early 20th century, there were so-called “nativists,” who railed against the taking in of so many newcomers, alongside immigrant aid groups. There was little middle ground between them, and the nativists were able to get Congress to impose a literacy test on all U.S. immigrants in 1917 — in the middle of the First World War — overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. While, today, we may have little sympathy for modern-day nativists who see little merit in accepting more immigrants, we must also not dismiss the changes that newcomers trigger in the people around us.
The most dramatic may have been the systematic decimation of the aboriginal population and their way of life, a fact vividly portrayed at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ontario. Research says that at the time of the first contact between Europeans and First Nations in the 1500s, there were five million people on the land, but, four centuries later, there were only 250,000. It’s only in recent years that these original land keepers have been able to revive themselves to their earlier numbers, but there’s no walking away from this legacy.
These historical lessons must inform Canadians as we finesse our immigration policy to suit our times. For, immigration defines us in a way that economic or foreign policy never will.