Immigration can be wonderful, when it's legal

A museum has opened in the Antwerp warehouse through which, between 1873-1934, more than 2 million emigrants left for America. It's a challenge to convey the sheer magnitude of what happened while retaining the human scale.

Here was a transcontinental movement the likes of which had never been seen; yet the passengers on those Red Star liners, from Albert Einstein in his first class cabin to the penniless Poles who had sold everything for a place in steerage, were as much the center of their own universe as you are.

Here you'll find, among many others, the story of a Ukrainian Jewish woman bringing her five children to join their father in New York after eight years. On arrival, she was told that her youngest girl, then eight years old, was suffering from a contagious eye disease, and wouldn't be allowed in the U.S. She faced an agonizing choice: to return to Europe or to divide the family.

In the end, she sent her daughter back across the Atlantic alone. Two years later, having been cared for in the mean time by a Jewish charity in Antwerp, the girl tried again, only to find that she still had traces of the infection. Only on her third crossing, aged 14, was she allowed to join her family.

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American immigration policy at that time was hard, unsentimental and enormously successful. The country needed able-bodied workers, and could afford to pick and choose. Some entrants were turned away on medical grounds, like the unfortunate Ukrainian child. Others because they couldn't read. Still others on account of their political opinions: America wanted no trade union agitators. From the 1920s, there were also restrictions by nationality, aimed at preventing ethnic ghettos.

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