Return to Ellis Island

By: Tom Campbell - Contributing columnist

Note to readers: With all the recent activity regarding immigration, we decided to repeat the column we wrote following a visit to Ellis Island, New York in 2011. It is relevant today.

Standing in the Great Hall of the Admissions Building on Ellis Island, you can almost hear the voices and feel the anxiety and excitement of the thousands of immigrants who daily poured into this country around the turn of the 20th century. Then, as now, gaining entrance to America wasn’t easy. At Ellis Island, you visit the rooms where immigrants submitted to health examinations, intelligence and literacy tests and provided proof they could support themselves long enough to find work. You are struck how difficult this process must have been but you also realize this country welcomed them.

The United States was growing, prospering and eagerly embracing its future, welcoming folks using tongues foreign to ours who came here desperate to make a better life than the one they left. We wanted folks to build the railroads and skyscrapers, dig the coal and run the machines. It was understood those at the lower end of the pay scale would help grow this country and provide opportunity, for themselves and everyone else to move upward. Yes, there was racial prejudice, there always has been, but there was also the overarching belief there was room for everyone at the table, plenty to be done, great opportunities and a better tomorrow.

What changed? When did we stop welcoming those from other countries? Instead of hiring thousands to process the thousand-plus people per day arriving on our shores we hired guards to protect our borders. What caused us to believe opportunity was limited, resources scarce, jobs fewer? Why did immigrants become our enemies? Do we not still believe our future is bright? Why are we unwilling to provide services and education to those coming here? And what so changed the political climate that our federal government is unable or unwilling to formalize new immigration policies, literally forcing states and cities to deal with the immigration issue?

Many states have reacted by enacting stiffer laws. In Alabama, a high-ranking German executive from parent Mercedes was detained for hours because he could not produce the proof of citizenship, as required by law, to be carried on every person at all times. Not only do we not welcome immigrants, we don’t welcome foreign executives, the very people who brought hundreds of high-paying jobs to Alabama. You can be sure they will get the message.

Small business owners in Alabama and Georgia and other states with restrictive immigration laws report they can’t find workers for construction, landscaping, food service and manufacturing. Farmers have crops rotting in the field for lack of workers. In Georgia, the economic loss is estimated to be almost 400 million dollars.

Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, recently wrote an op-ed piece saying a more rational and reasonable policy for guest workers and immigrants must be developed, adding farmers aren’t recommending amnesty, nor advocating the exploitation of cheap labor, but insist on a timely public policy discussion on immigration reform. He is correct in saying we can’t wait any longer.

Surely a country that grew great through immigrants should be able to find solutions that will keep the welcome mat out for newcomers. To do otherwise is to dishonor the Ellis Island experience that helped shape our country. We are better than that.

Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues that airs on UNC-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.

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Tom Campbell

Contributing columnist