Chapter 3 continues
The story so far: Paul and Katka are separated.
Paul glanced around. In the corner of his eye, he spotted the wide-brimmed purple hat. Elizabeth was watching him. Should he run? As if reading his mind, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn shook her head, no.
The immigration agent led Paul to a holding room just off the main hall. Inside, several men and a few women shifted uncomfortably on chairs. Everyone had an “A.” Paul looked around at the crowded room. Each person, he imagined, had a story to tell, but not all had a cause for which to fight. Although some were socialists, anarchists, revolutionaries and political agitators, most were naturalized citizens of the United States, and some were even born in this country.
In New York, there had been several raids in the past few weeks. The police had arrested numerous famous people, one of whom was the Russian immigrant, Emma Goldman, an anarchist married to a doctor who treated diseases related to poverty. She was arrested for giving a speech in which she advocated access to birth control. Her speech violated the Comstock Law, which prevented the distribution of “lascivious” literature. She had waited in this same room only days prior. Goldman’s arrest was lauded by newspapers across the country. Political writers urged that America weed out new immigrants, like Goldman, who were unhappy with the status quo.
Since the war with Germany erupted, a new ideological movement swept across the land, finding favor with members of high society and Congress. Books were published warning against the “mongrelization” of America, particularly through immigration of people from Eastern Europe, like Katka and Paul. The books claimed the immigrants possessed a higher percentage of socially deviant qualities.
New York’s mayor read these articles. He listened to his wealthy benefactors. He ordered his police force to infiltrate union halls and arrest everyone inside. They also entered taverns in the warehouse districts and textile neighborhoods, and arrested everyone who looked Slavic or Jewish, shipping them off to Ellis Island. Each day, a new group would be shuffled into this room, where an inspector would create a file before escorting them to their prison cells.
Paul took a seat in the back. “How long you been here?” Paul asked the man to his left. He was about fifty years old, with a neck the size of an oak tree. The man had giant hands to match and a tanned face.
“In this room, here? ’Bout four hours. They ain’t in no hurry, I’ll tell you that much.”
“You don’t look like you come off a boat.”
“Came off my shift. I’m a dockworker. When I arrived this morning, there they was, with their clubs. Told the whole lot of us to load up in the paddy wagon, else they’d kill us.”
“What’s the reason?”
“Said they heard we was organizing.”
“You should’ve run.”
The dockworker sneered at him. “Innocent men don’t run. I’m a patriot, not an immigrant. Nothing bad will happen to me. You’ll see.”
Years ago, the inhabitants of this room had their fates decided relatively quickly. They were imprisoned for a week, possibly two. Then they would go to trial and a judge would either deport them, release them to a family for observation or absolve them.
In 1906, when Paul first arrived in America, over a million immigrants had entered the country, almost 900,000 through Ellis Island. The building overflowed and the staff was insufficiently equipped. Immigrants with illnesses spilled over from the hospital wards into the detainment quarters.
But this was not 1906. It was 1915. War had erupted overseas and immigration was severely curtailed. The hospitals and detainment quarters were no longer overflowing. Fewer than 150,000 immigrants would come through Ellis Island this year and more than ninety percent would pass through the inspections within hours of arrival.
Those who did not pass inspections faced a new kind of destiny. Ellis Island was no longer simply a port of arrival for immigrants. It had become a jail for anyone suspected of anti-American activity. It also housed vagrants and New Yorkers with loathsome communicable diseases.
The war made it nearly impossible to deport anyone. Prisoners found themselves living at Ellis Island for years.
Paul put his feet up, leaned back and closed his eyes. He thought about Katka.
The immigration official did not place a mark on Katka’s coat and she was shuffled into the “lucky” lane, where she waited briefly to see the doctor. When she stood before him, she wondered if she looked as strong and healthy as an American woman should. The doctor did not see her as a woman, but instead, maneuvered her body as if she were a horse in a barn. He looked at her hands, looked down her throat and ran his fingers through her hair looking for bugs. Then he inverted her eyelids with a buttonhook, glanced briefly at each eye, and nodded. She had passed the medical exam.
“Language?” The doctor asked.
“Slovensko,” she replied and was sent to an interpreter who spoke Slovenian. He found her name on the ship’s manifest, asked her dozens of simple questions, glanced at her money and read the note from her uncle. He issued her a New Immigrant Card, and fastened a sign around her neck with her name and destination.
“Welcome to America,” he said with absolutely no enthusiasm. “That way to the train.”
She slipped the documents into her right pocket, grabbed the leather strap on her cedar trunk and dragged it slowly, looking for Paul. When she stopped near the top of the staircase, to look down on the immigrants below, a young woman wearing a large purple hat bumped into her, dropping a small suitcase to the ground.
“Oh, sorry!” the woman said loudly in English. The woman’s suitcase clasp opened. Katka bent down to help the stranger retrieve the contents. Socks, utensils, a few books, a man’s shirt, a hat, a scarf and a photograph.
The woman had a cloud of black hair and deep blue eyes. While their heads were near the floor, shoving the clothing back inside, the stranger whispered. “Do you speak English?”
“Your friend has been detained. Carry on.” Before she left, the strange woman picked up the photo, glanced at it and paused. Then she handed Katka the photograph. “I think this belongs to you.”
Tomorrow: Chapter 4 continues.