By Kathy Mimberg, Media Relations Manager, NCLR
As we reflect this week on the things for which we are thankful, I think of the terrific teachers at my son’s public school who have strengthened his understanding of our nation’s history as a community of immigrants. Recently, I had the pleasure of participating in a yearly event that his Social Studies teachers developed that truly brings America’s “salad bowl” history to life for their students, who represent a diverse mix of race, ethnicity, religion and family income levels.
After weeks of investigating where turn-of-the-century migrants came from and why they left their home countries to start a new life far from everything that was familiar, the students had chosen their roles and were ready for “Ellis Island Day.” They adopted new names, researched and wrote narratives, and memorized details of background, family, and religion in order to answer questions from immigration agents and gain U.S. citizenship. Their work culminated in a full school day devoted to the Ellis Island experience, during which teachers and parent volunteers acted as agents, doctors, and judges who reviewed their documents, assessed each immigrant’s case, and decided whether to approve or deny citizenship applications.
Wearing costumes and carrying props, the children stayed in character. It was an eye-opening event—the students learned about political and religious persecution, as well as the economic crises that compel people to search for a more promising future in a new nation. The “processing” was exhausting; nearly 400 students waited in long lines as they went from office to office. They were hot and uncomfortable, and were often confused about where to go and what was being asked of them. Some “families” were separated, and a few participants were “deported.” As students answered questions about themselves and their plans, they had an inkling of what it must feel like to deal with a bureaucracy that holds your future in its hands. It wasn’t easy to reach the end of the process and take the citizenship oath—lots of high-fives from those who made it and could join the post-event debriefing!
Recreating this history was enlightening on a personal level and also highlighted how our nation’s success has been fueled by the aspirations of individuals from a broad band of ethnicities, races, cultures, and religions. “Ellis Island Day” prompted my son to ask his grandfather about when he arrived in the U.S. as a child and knew nothing about this country, its language, and its customs. And it has helped him connect the dots about why I have brought him to rallies for immigration reform to support families who want the same things in life that we take for granted—the chance to stay together, work hard, and build a secure future. Too many families today suffer the heartbreaking reality of deportation.
My son and his classmates learned how America’s core values of freedom and opportunity for all beckon people from around the world. Immigrants coming to the U.S. today are just as brave and industrious as those from 100 years ago, and they deserve the same opportunities. Our nation has thrived by welcoming newcomers whose strong work ethic and focus on family contribute to our collective future.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, I want to thank the creative teachers who led this inspiring history lesson. And I am thankful, too, for NCLR and my colleagues who are working passionately to fix our nation’s broken immigration system and honor our American tradition of embracing all who seek a better life.