“They didn’t say anything,” Ana Rivera told Jonathan Blitzer, a reporter for The New Yorker.
“They just walked over and grabbed Jairo. It felt like my son was stuck to me. He clung to me, cried and screamed. They had to pull him away.”
Ana Rivera and five-year-old Jairo entered the U.S. on May 5, from Honduras. Charged with illegal entry, she was taken to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Processing Center, in El Paso, Texas. Her son was sent by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to Chicago, where he was held in custody for six weeks.
An immigration lawyer located Jairo, and he was transferred later back to an ORR facility in El Paso. He and Ana remain separated and awaiting deportation to Honduras, a country where she fears for her life. “But I’ve told them, ‘If you take me to the airport and my son isn’t there, you’ll be killing me.’”
A century ago, America opened its arms to immigrant families. When they arrived at Ellis Island, families stayed together. They had to undergo inspection and interviews, but they did so together.
Some children were separated from their families, but the separation was for the purpose of enabling them to enter America. Thousands of children arrived sick at Ellis Island from diseases they had contracted in their home country, or while traveling for weeks on overcrowded steamships. They were taken, accompanied by their parents, to the 22-building medical complex on the island, and assigned to the ward corresponding to their disease. Their parents were housed in adjoining dormitories.
Some children — those with a potentially deadly contagious disease — were placed in quarantine, apart from their parents, who were not allowed to visit them. Nonetheless, they were made to feel safe and at home. The hospital complex on Ellis Island had a school, a library, weekly movies, social and legal aid workers, and chaplains who made regular visits to the sick wards. Holidays were celebrated with candy and gifts. There was a kosher kitchen and other accommodations for those who, by virtue of their religion or culture, had special dietary needs.
In the filming of my documentary about the Ellis Island hospital, I interviewed John Gaquer, then 75 years-old, who had arrived at Ellis at the age of five and was hospitalized for diphtheria. He was taken from his mother, fearful that he would never see her again. But he was nursed to health and reunited with her, and they left together to create a life in America.
Separation from parents at an early age can be traumatic, whatever the reason. Another of my interviewees, Anne Rierson, was separated from her parents for five days as a health precaution. She thought she’d been abandoned.
There can be good reasons for separating parent from child at a U.S. point of entry. There are also capricious reasons. There was never a time when caprice was a governing policy at Ellis Island. Families who arrived together, stayed together, save for those instances where public health was at risk.
Ellis Island was not immune from manipulation by the era’s nativists. Many Americans opposed the entry of Italians, Greeks, Poles, Jews, and virtually everyone else from southern and eastern Europe. When mental testing was introduced on Ellis, Italians and Jews in particular were singled out. Some were declared mentally unfit and deported to their country of origin.
One would like to think, a century later, that we are a more advanced society, that we would more deeply understand that people are more alike than different. One would also think that people today would more easily understand the plight of the migrant. As Leah Shain, whose aunt was detained on Ellis Island, told me in an interview, “They didn’t leave where they came from because life was so good for them. It wasn’t. Whatever they had here was better.”
We turn our back on our collective history at our own, personal peril. The American immigration story includes our individual histories. An exact estimate is impossible, but tens of millions of Americans today are descendants of immigrants who often were thought deplorable by those already here. One of them is Stephen Miller, a chief architect of President Trump’s family separation policy. His great-grandfather, Sam Glosser, fearing the pogroms, left Byelorussia in the early 1900s. Had he been sent back, his fate would have rested with Stalin or Hitler.
It’s too soon to know fully the damage that the Trump administration’s immigration policies are doing to America’s image abroad, or how many thousands of families have suffered from it, some of whom are sure to die at the hands of criminals when sent back to their home countries. What we do know is that America has taken a large step back in time, before the era of Ellis Island, perhaps as far back as the 1840s, when the Protestant majority tried by every tool available to prevent the entry of Irish Catholics — like me.
The original version of this article was published in the Huffington Post on July 4, 2018. It was lightly edited and republished here with the author’s approval.