By Sarah Pridgeon
Public speaking has never been my greatest strength so, when I was asked to address the students at the Bear Lodge High School last week, my initial reaction was to install myself beneath a desk until the request went away. But after an extended musing, I realized that making speeches terrifies me only because the knowledge stored in my brain dribbles straight out of my ears when I am faced with a crowd larger than three. In this case, I was being asked to elaborate on my experience of moving across the pond – and that I am unlikely to forget.
The students were embroiled in a project about immigration, taking a historical look at how this country gathered its citizens. They had learned about Ellis Island and the dream of a better life, so it was my job to add a more current spin to the topic.
When I began speaking, I assumed that the process would be wildly removed from a century ago, with little remaining of the original Ellis Island process. I did not arrive here clutching a tweed cap between my hands and I was given forms to fill out instead of being shouted at by agents at the dock. But after watching the simulation, it would seem that I was wrong.
I looked on as each student role-played the experience of landing in New York and presenting themselves for interrogation. Beautifully played out by a teacher who should probably relocate to Hollywood, it involved a lightning-fast barrage of questions that retained much of the overall flavor of today’s system: if you want to be an American, you must be prepared to put in the effort.
We immigrants are still regarded with a certain amount of suspicion and some of us no doubt deserve it. Even today, before we are allowed into the country, we must prove ourselves to be valid members of the community, standing at the gates for acceptable reasons and unlikely to spread an epidemic of yellow fever.
Every potential citizen was asked a set of questions at Ellis Island that are still ensconced in the current set of forms, though each is now asked in eight different ways and must be supported by at least twenty documents that have been signed in front of a notary. Strict regulations have replaced the stern gaze of the immigration officer, but all to the same overall end.
I was checked for good health just as the original immigrants were, but I was also asked to endure several million inoculations before I arrived. This has made me immune to almost every disease known to modern man and several that ceased to exist before the turn of the millennium.
I was given the traditional medical inspection, but for me it involved an x-ray and a brief once-over by a doctor in an expensive London surgery and an additional inspection by a Gillette doctor who prodded my limbs, stared at my armpit and decided not to mark any part of me with chalk. He then, though I have only come to realize this after witnessing the simulation, followed the time-honored process of checking that my back is reasonably straight.
I was asked to provide evidence that I could pay my way and earn a living without becoming a burden on the state, but I also needed a sponsor to pledge financial support should I turn out to have bent the truth. Nobody asked me how much cash I was carrying in my pockets, but that may have been because they had taken it all to pay for the testing.
My immigration forms still required me to confirm that my criminal record is clean but, these days, they neither take your word for it nor ask you if you would keep a dollar bill that someone else had dropped. Instead, you must petition the head of the London Metropolitan Police for a certificate of overall innocence with a photograph at the top for easy identification.
In my case, in a moment of unexpected irony, the photograph was taken early in the morning in bad lighting and a bad mood and made me look like a pasty-faced axe murderer. It cannot have been an easy certificate to sign.
My name was not changed as I entered the country, though they may have deemed it pointless to fiddle with a spelling I was only planning to keep for three more weeks. Nor was I asked to take an English language test, which I would probably have found vaguely insulting.
Consequently, while the process took around five hours at the turn of the twentieth century, for me it has taken almost four years – and I am not yet finished on the journey. Even now, I have yet to reach the part of the process where I take the Pledge of Allegiance and officially offer my loyalty to this great nation. It will be at least two more years before I can take that final step.
The Ellis Island simulation had dual meanings for me – I think I enjoyed it almost as much as the students. Not only did it bring back fond memories of painful inoculations and endless forms, it also charted the history of my own family.
There aren’t many people left in the UK who share my maiden name, you see, and after a little investigation we discovered that this is because they’re all over here. Members of my extended clan may well have been among those who passed through Ellis Island’s gates or headed north for Canada, clad in tartan kilts and chewing on slabs of haggis.
I am thus not the first of my ilk to stand wait at the Golden Door, though I am here to embark on married life rather than to flee from famine or persecution. But immigration was as daunting for me as it was for my ancestors because, no matter how well you fill out those forms or how friendly and efficient the officials who process your request, there is always that sense of uncertainty.
Will they consider me to be a worthwhile addition to the citizenship? Do I have enough dollar bills stashed in my pocket? Until I take that pledge, I cannot really be sure. But on the upside, there is little chance I will take my new life for granted during the wait.