The first time I went to New York was on a family trip when I was 21 years old and the city was still digging through the remains of the World Trade Center. On a sunny, freezing cold day we got a ferry to Ellis Island and did a tour. The five of us had a chance to crowd around a computer and search the database. Both my parents knew many young people from their respective home towns had likely passed through immigration in the building we sat in, and sure enough just searching through lists using a couple of search terms threw up familiar names, sometimes a little misspelled (probably due to accents and things getting lost in translation during what must have been a fairly noisy, busy process), and always young. They were 16, 17, 18 or 19 years of age, setting off I suppose with dreams and hopes of their own. They can’t have been that different to my and my siblings who were of similar ages and had and still have dreams of our own.
In 2011, we went to America on honeymoon and spent the last few days in New York. I felt a real urge to visit Ellis Island again so on a sunny, warm day we got a ferry there and did another tour. This time, it was me and my brand new husband sharing a computer and we did similar searches and once again I was wondering why I was so moved by simple lists of names, ages and places of birth and why I would feel a connection to those people and hoped life had turned out ok for them.
My husband is an immigrant. He wasn’t born in Ireland, but he grew up here. Thanks to a strange twist of fate his parents came back here and so he has dual citizenship and, thanks to various legal immigration and citizenship arrangements so do I. We’re white, we’ve both got transferrable skills and we’d both qualify under the proposed new immigration rating system to go back to New York once more and work there. We’re not really dreaming about that right now, for many reasons. Your dreams change over time – be they the dreams of a 17 year old boy still queasy from weeks spent on a rocky ship seeing a city for the first time or a couple who aren’t worried about impressing immigration officials standing in a huge hall.
I don’t know how my husband or I would cope if he was sent ‘back’ to his country of birth. His parents did everything above board, but that’s just the luck of the draw. They had dreams when they left to make a life somewhere else and have children and work and build something new. My husband shouldn’t have to live with an immigration based sword of Damocles hanging over him and, thankfully, he doesn’t and nor do I. But when I organised our files yesterday and sorted through paperwork from different countries letting us know who we are and what we can do and, in essence, what a country thinks of us, I began to think about the Dreamers in New York, and everywhere else in America.
I think about them, and the lists of those young people we saw on a computer screen in Ellis Island, and the hopes and dreams they have and had. And I think of the poem every Irish school kid has to analyse for exams rendering it devoid of meaning until you can read it for its own sake, WB Yeats’ The Cloths of Heaven. And I hope that those in the US who can do something about the Dreamers remember to tread softly, because they are treading on people’s dreams.