My Cab Ride With Muhammad Ali and Reflections on Ellis Island

11/10/17

I shared a cab with Muhammad Ali recently.  No, not that one, of course.  Muhammad, formerly of Sudan but now of New York City.  We both had something in common.  Both of us were immigrants from Kansas--him more recently than me, having spent most of his nine years in the United States working in the meat-packing plants of three of our member companies.

Actually, as you may have guessed by now, we only literally shared the cab because Muhammad was my cab driver, something he does 12 hours a day, seven days a week, until he earns enough to be able to go back to Sudan to bring his wife to the United States.  They have no children.  They hope that will happen after she gets to the U.S., where they can get an American education.  (And, by the way, he will take her back to Kansas, which he much prefers over New York City.)

Muhammad’s story was particularly compelling, as he was taking me, my wife, daughter-in-law and grand-daughter to Battery Park, so we could take the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Of the United States’ iconic landmarks, Ellis Island may be the most compelling as a representation of the U.S.’s unique brand of exceptionalism.  With very few of us being able to claim we are “native Americans,” our distinctive and powerful culture is a blend of cultures throughout the world brought to us by their own products who, for whatever reason, decided to come and stay here.

But Ellis Island also represents something else beyond the various nationalities and cultures that passed through its portal.  As you wander through the museum and listen to the various stories, you can’t help but think about the millions of individuals who got there under extremely difficult circumstances.  You have to believe that their perseverance and optimism left a legacy with their offspring contributing to our national strength.

One story in particular struck me as representative of this determination.  It was a grandmother who accompanied her family members from Russia.  She failed the medical inspection because of an unusual growth on one of her fingernails.  Modern medicine probably would have been able to diagnose her condition and very likely would have determined it was not a public threat but during the period Ellis Island was in operation, they were overly cautious for good reason.  That was small consolation to the grandmother who was sent back by herself on the long journey back to Russia, where her family never heard from her again (if in fact she even made it back).  This had to be a very painful moment for the entire family but I can only speculate that a part of her felt a sense of accomplishment that her children and theirs had finally made it to our shores.

How many of us could make that sacrifice?  Indeed, how many of us would drive a cab 12 hours a day, seven days a week.  Yet, most of us probably have someone in our past that had that kind of determination which contributed to who we are today.  In my case, one of them was a blacksmith who migrated to a town in Western Kansas, where he was very likely subjected to harsh treatment during World War I because of his German heritage.  Our proud history notwithstanding, xenophobia is nothing new—or unique to the United States for that matter.

It is hard to imagine that any of those who bitterly resent our immigrant population have made the trip to Ellis Island.  Indeed, we all hear “a nation of immigrants” and “melting pot” so often we become numb to what it means.  The pictures and stories of Ellis Island make it real.  Meanwhile, the contributions of foreign-born workers to the United States shows that this influence is still strong.  As 110 of our member chief human resource officers pointed out in their recent letter to Washington policymakers, a survey by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation of those responsible for some of the most important innovations in the United States found that over a third are foreign-born while 17 percent are not U.S. citizens.  That’s why for most companies, immigration issues are not just about compassion, but the economic, social and cultural benefits as well.

Meanwhile, the next morning, we were driven to the airport by another immigrant, this one from Senegal and whose name I won’t try to spell.  Unlike Muhammad, who travels back to Sudan regularly to visit family, this Senegalese “didn’t have his papers” so will likely live out his days without seeing his homeland or family again, but he does have his wife here and is happy and proud to be in the U.S.

Ellis Island shut down in 1954 when most immigrants stopped coming by ship.  In a way, it’s too bad because now the various stories are more diffused.  So, if you can’t make it to Ellis Island to learn those stories, have a conversation with a cab driver, a medical practitioner, a database administrator or whomever and see if you don’t come to the same conclusion I did.