The current immigration crisis at our southern border is nothing new, and the story of oppressed people fleeing from one violent country to a land of freedom and opportunity is part of history, including in the second book in the Bible, Exodus, when Moses leads his people from the enslavement of Egypt toward the Promised Land. In his final speech the night before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. made a poignant reference to a “Promised Land.” King suggested he would not get there with his congregation, and sadly, he was right.
Immigration provides a continuous saga in American history, since all Americans, including Indigenous people, came from somewhere else. Every American family has immigration stories and tales of endurance and heroism.
In popular culture, there is the dramatic scene in “The Godfather Part II” when the boy, Vito Corleone, is looking at the Statue of Liberty, remembering the murder of his mother by a Sicilian gangster. Young Vito grows into a mob boss, himself, and one day returns to Sicily to avenge his mother’s death. His family blood feuds are not forgotten.
We still remember the Mormon pioneers crossing the country to what they called “the Place,” the great Salt Lake in Utah, their numbers more evident by the time of the Civil War.
Some years ago, I wrote “Confessions of a Shanty Irishman,” a hybrid memoir — hybrid in the sense it contained some fiction and non-fiction. I tried to describe my paternal grandparents, Thomas and Agnes, Irish immigrants who helped raise me with a single father. Later, a genealogy expert and friend, Sandy Studely, found my maternal great-grandfather, Michael Joyce from Galway, revealing more stories of hardship and tragedy.
All of them had one goal: to escape poverty and danger find a new life in America.
What is particularly fascinating is that when my grandfather, Thomas, came to America, he did not need a passport. In 1907, he left Queenstown in Ireland and took a ship to Ellis Island in New York. Here is an excerpt from “Confessions” with language from the time:
“The ship’s list broke down the passengers by ethnic groups: Polish, German, Spanish, and British. Hebrew was a classification for a race and noted carefully. A separate passage explained that any appearance of black blood qualified a passenger as Negro. Cubans were differentiated from Negroes. Irish, Scotch, Welsh and English passengers were grouped together as British citizens. ... All immigrants were asked if they were anarchists or polygamists. They wrote who paid for their fare and how much money they carried. Thomas was wealthy with $75 dollars. They all noted their health was good and none were scarred or crippled. The officer guaranteed none were ‘idiots, paupers or criminals.’ The process was repeated, one ship’s manifest after another listing displaced passengers from so long ago seeking the elusive American dream. Each name in every column carried a bitter history.”
Both my grandfather and great-grandfather helped rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, though Michael Joyce, a widower, did not live past 41. He was killed in a fight on the job in December of 1907, leaving behind nine children, including my maternal grandmother, Esther.
The LDS Church put the Ellis Island records online, so you might investigate your own ancestors and find many universal stories.
There is no easy answer to the current conflict at the border with people fleeing gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras and Salvador, but we should remember where we all came from and exercise compassion.
Michael Corrigan graduated from San Francisco State with an Master of Arts degree in English and creative writing. He was active in theater and attended the American Film Institute. He retired from Idaho State University as an instructor of English and speech communications. He has written several books, including “Confessions of a Shanty Irishman,” “Mulligan” and “These Precious Hours.” NPR broadcast his play for two readers: “Letters from Rebecca.”