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NPS-Ellis Island: College Students Engage in Immigration Dialogue


Bureau: National Park Service


  Students engaged in a discussion about immigration and Ellis Island 
  New Jersey City University students analyze a political cartoon during a "Speaking of Immigration" dialogue session developed by rangers at the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Photo by Kevin Daley, NPS. 

What relevance does a historic site like Ellis Island have for immigrants today? Quite a lot, according to college students participating in the park’s latest facilitated dialogue program.

“Speaking of Immigration” is a program that helps to connect the historic stories at Ellis Island to the experiences of immigrants in local communities today.  Developed by rangers at the Statue of Liberty National Monument, the project is part of the National Dialogues on Immigration, a 20-site effort sponsored by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

The Ellis Island program consists of four visits over the course of a semester that combine interactive ranger-guided tours with facilitated dialogue comparing immigration issues then and now. Different sessions focus on the process of immigration, assimilation and community, immigrants at work, and citizenship.

This spring, 30 students participated in the park’s dialogue program. These individuals attend sociology and geography classes at one of the Statue of Liberty’s partner institutions, New Jersey City University. Most of the students have a strong relationship to immigration, being either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants.  Thus, the program hopes to engender discussions about their personal experiences, while enabling them to understand the larger issues of immigration in both past and present contexts.

“Speaking of Immigration” helps students unpack the feelings they have about immigration in their lives and communities.  The discussions often elicit a variety of perspectives.  For example, when asked about whether immigrants should be required to learn English, one student expressed great displeasure about those who live in “ethnic enclaves” without being able to acquire the English language.  

Another participant countered that since immigrants “come to be free, they should be given the right to be themselves.”  He continued, “Don’t hide who you are.  That’s why it’s ‘We the people.’”

A third student voiced concern that while her mother-in-law has been in the country for years, she still does not speak English and her family has to be responsible for helping her with basic activities, like visiting the doctor.  While ethnic communities offer a “safe place” for newly arrived immigrants, this participant felt miffed that many can still be “isolated in their immigrant pockets.”

Another discussion centered on the citizenship exam.  A student wondered aloud, “What is the exam supposed to test?  Does this test really prove how American I am?”  Another participant who helped her aunt with the citizenship exam remarked, “The test was hard.  You have to study for one hundred questions, they test you on ten questions, and you have to get five correct.  Before helping her to study, I could not even pass the examination.”  

Students led a spirited discussion on the merits of the citizenship process, looking at the “inner meaning” behind the Pledge of Allegiance, the Oath of Allegiance, and the benefits and drawbacks of dual citizenship.

These dialogues illustrate the relevance that Ellis Island still holds today as a space that speaks to the contemporary immigrant experience.  The program with NJCU participants has shown that the topic of immigration continues to evoke visceral and personal emotions.  

The conversations have helped participants reflect on the complexities of immigration and, in turn, develop multiple perspectives.  By connecting the immigrant history at Ellis Island to those immigrants arriving in local communities today, the park can help build on these powerful connections and make immigration an enlivened experience.

By: Peter Wong, NPS
August 12, 2014

Story from NPS' The Morning Report; photo, InsideNPS.