The Immigrant

August 6, 2017
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*The following is a transcript of a mock documentary of an Irish immigrant to Ellis Island (made when the author was in fourth grade), interweaved with the author's first-person commentary.


ANNOUNCEMENT: Ladies and gentlemen, you are now on the ride The Road to the Future. Before we start this wonderfully satisfying ride, we have a few precautions to tell you. For your safety, please refrain from leaving your seat during this ride. We offer no refunds for any injuries or deaths. No food or drinks are allowed at this time. If you are allergic to Ellis Island documentaries, we advise you to leave immediately, to avoid any disruption during the ride. Please do not pinch, slap, tackle, or inflict any harm to your fellow classmates during the ride. Thank you for your cooperation.


I, Mary Deck, former resident of County Cork, Ireland, am now a witness of the great Statue of Liberty, a sure sign that I have arrived at America. The White Star, the ship that I have been cooped up in for so long, is finally approaching Ellis Island, the immigration station.  As soon I pass through Ellis Island, I will be walking on roads paved with gold with my dear father, which will delight me and my porcelain doll, Anne, who has been my only comfort on this perilous voyage.


May 5th, 2006. I was on the verge of turning six when I left for the United States. I’d only known one town during my short life--Yatap. My days up until then had consisted of drawing murals on the living room walls with my crayons, taking care of my dolls, scrabbling through the sand on the playground, and looking after my baby sister. My dad had already flown to the United States weeks before to get everything ready for us. We would soon be reunited.

As I step off the White Star, I feel the slightest hint of worry forming in my heart. I quickly ignore those feelings and proceed to the Ellis Island inspection hall in tiny, hesitating steps. The “Buttonhook Men,” as the steerage passengers called the doctors, await us immigrants at the end of the hall. In a panic, my brain perceives that they seem to be waiting just for me, watching me with those dark eyes, already deciding if I should be sent back to Cork, which shall be absolutely dreadful, for my family has worked day and night to earn my ticket. I watch the other immigrants endure the heavy fog of tension, and I feel a little bit better. Sooner than I thought, even though it has been several hours, it is my turn.


On the actual day of our departure, we were almost late for our flight. We ran to the gate. Everyone was already lined up to get on the plane. My mom let out a sigh of relief. Seeing that she had two little children with her, the airline was kind enough to escort her to the front of the line.

In the first stage of the inspection, the doctor flips my eyelid to inspect my eye. I am finally done. I am overjoyed, but the lady behind me is obviously not. She has pinkeye and now her coat is marked with a big E. She sobs dry sobs, and is taken to a room, and I hear people whisper that she will be given a full examination, and be possibly sent back! Why, if that does happen, the door to America for her will be closed forever! I simply cannot imagine myself having a full examination, for it is simply a whole new experience I dare not go into.


I don’t remember passing through customs in the United States for that first time. I was too young, too bewildered to remember. I do remember the process several years later when my family was returning to Newark Liberty Airport from a vacation in Cancún, México; when we got in the line for U.S. Residents, an African American officer voiced doubt that we were in the correct line. Something about her seemed strangely belligerent. My father quietly reaffirmed that we were residents of the United States, and had the papers to prove it.

I walk with a little more confidence towards the other examinations. Other doctors ask me all sorts of questions in English, but they were fairly simple, and since most people of Cork speak English instead of Gaelic, I knew English pretty well – I was one of the lucky ones.  Near me there is a man from Poland who does not speak any English, and the doctors think he has a mental disease. That mister gets a big X on his coat, which marks him as a suspect.


Fairly recently I visited the United States--February 2015. It had been three and a half years since I had last set foot in America. At JFK International Airport, we were met by a row of Department of Homeland Security officers who sat at their glass-walled desks checking passports and asking questions. My mom, sister, and I were received by a middle-aged woman, formidable in her uniform. She took our passports and asked us why we were visiting the United States and how long we were planning to stay.

Sensing my mom’s difficulty in handling the questions, I stepped up and answered them in English. As I did so, something in the officer’s demeanor relaxed a little--a professional warmth spread through her features, and she welcomed us to the United States.

A doctor asks me, “How old are you?” That one was easy. “17,” I answered. “Who will take care of you when you arrive at America?” Obliged to answer, I told him, “My father.”  I pass these tests, including the one where more Americans asked me if I had a job waiting for me in America. I shook my head. “No,” I said quietly. Another man, his mustache boarding up his ability to smile, asked me if I, a mere young woman, had spent time in prison. “No, sir,” I answered him.   After what seemed to be forever, the officer said “You pass, miss,” a man said gruffly. After this step of immigration, I suddenly recalled what my mother had said months before, in Cork. She had said, “Go to that staircase, the staircase that separates all. Some will find fear, stuck in the detention room, while others shall find joy, entering that land.” I thought about my mother’s words, trying to decipher what she said. Then I saw the staircase. It was like the future, spread out in front of me. The staircase that will lead me to the gold paved roads of America, the doorway to my dreams.


When I was assigned a long-term project on Ellis Island in fourth grade, I did not immediately grasp the connection between my own experiences and that of the Ellis Island immigrants. I wrote out a fiction about Mary Deck, a seventeen-year-old from County Cork, Ireland, who had traveled by ship to America to escape the potato famine that was ravaging her home. She envisions that gold-paved roads await her in America; I never wrote out the rest of her story.

I came to the United States with simple hopes: to make friends and continue the idyllic existence I’d led previously in Korea. But my years in America, coupled with the ambition that developed in my nature in the succeeding years, instilled in me a fervent desire to achieve the American Dream. Like so many other immigrants before me, I’d been sold on the lofty ideas of the pursuit of happiness and the land of opportunity.

I went down all the way to the Kissing Post of America, where my father awaited me with open arms, waiting for me to run into them. Oh, it has been three years since I saw him! In the many months I had to suffer with fear to get here, it was truly and absolutely worth it, because the joy that I felt right now was priceless. Even though I would have to face many uncertainties, my life has changed forever, and my future altered permanently.

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