One of the most patriotic tourism tickets in New York City is the boat that takes you to Ellis Island and Liberty Island (home of the Statute of Liberty), both of which are run by the National Parks Service. You can read the lines about the huddled masses, visit the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, and search for your ancestors' names on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor. The tour is a tribute to America's openness, to the idea that the US is a place that people come to start new lives, where those who have faced persecution and oppression can find freedom.
For decades, this was an idea that American presidents paid tribute to, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. But this week a visit to Ellis and Liberty islands feels oddly partisan. Donald Trump's executive order banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US—and temporarily blocking all refugee admissions—has led to waves of protests and legal challenges, but to many, it's also been a stain on the ideal (not always lived up to) of America as a welcoming place.
Curious to see how this new political climate was coloring the experiences of visitors to Ellis Island, VICE sent photographer Jason Bergman out to talk to tourists and take their portraits. Here's what they told him.
All interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Corey, from Boston, 30 years old (left): I've lived here my whole life. My great-great-great grandfather came from Ireland—probably through here. I don't know all of the stories. I'm in New York because I'm on vacation.
Mostly simply put is we're a nation of immigrants, all of us. Even the Native Americans, their ancestors came over the land bridge. You can't just say, "We're done, thanks. Go home."
Jeff Garza, from Jacksonville (right): I wanted to see the rich history. Everyone's come through here for the past 200, 300 years, this has always been a main point of entry. We're a country of immigrants—this is something you have to see in America.
It's kind of disheartening to see what's going in this country over the past couple weeks when it comes to immigration policy. I get why we're doing some of that stuff, but at the same time, we're a country of immigrants.
Mitch Kuhman, from Orlando, 30 (left): I had family from Germany and Italy that came through this way. I'm third or fourth generation, I believe. To me, it's sentimental to be able to see this.
Garza: I just want to learn more about the process back then. I've heard so many stories of people coming from all over the world. This is a symbol of hope, and this is the first thing you see: the Statue of Liberty, which is supposed to be a beacon of hope. The first thing you come into is Ellis Island, which is the first step to a new life. Getting that perspective, how it was walking in their footsteps, was something.
Roger Florentino, from California, 32: This is my first time on the East Coast, and we're sightseeing. We went to check out the Statue of Liberty, so we came out here. It's real interesting to see all this immigration history. You learn about it in school, but it's not as detailed as it is here—you've got so much background.
I don't know my ancestry that much, but I know most of us are on the West Coast. It's very interesting, though. You get the vibes of all the souls that have passed through here.
I think Trump is appealing to his crowd and people who think like him, but there are a lot more people who have very strong opinions because they're immigrants, or they've dealt directly with immigrants and real-life issues. He doesn't deal with real-life issues. He's part of the One Percent. His reality isn't our reality. I understand what he's doing but… there's more of us than there are of them. I think the next four years are going to be monumental for society as far as standing up and really showing what we're thinking.
Coming here made me understand immigrants on the East Coast—I see the Czechoslovakian people, the Irish people. I met really great people from different parts of the world, and they're immigrants as well, and they're like, "What Donald Trump is doing is old, it's an outdated mentality."
I think this is our time to speak our opinions as to where we want the country to go.
Siobhan, from San Francisco: We're only visiting a few days; we're originally from the East Coast. I had been here as a kid tons of times, but with everything that's happening, it was symbolic for us to come today. It's always been on my mind to come, but it resonated more today. My mother's family is from Italy, and my father's family is from Ireland.
Douglas, also from San Francisco (right): Trump's view on immigrants is abhorrent. It's not just a threat to immigrants, but it's a threat to democracy. The way they're using the ban—everything from that to voter suppression—is setting up a constitutional crisis and what will end up being an electoral crisis and probably a national security crisis.
I think people have to realize that some of the stuff we've seen over the last week we've been through before. People have fought through these kinds of anti-immigrant feelings before—so maybe take some lessons from that.
Siobahn: I'm emotional just going through the Statue of Liberty again and reading the words. It brought me to a spot where I was a little verklempt. I'm not sure if this is going to be around much longer! I could go on and on about it.
Jon, from Ohio, 22: I actually don't know at all if my family went through here.
Tiffany, also from Ohio, 25: My family did come through here. My family were Irish immigrants. My great-great-great-grandfather is in the book and stuff—my grandfather did a bunch of research into it.
Obviously this whole Trump thing—I'm not for him. All these immigration policies are just crazy to me. We're supposed to be a country about freedom and equal rights and everything. It's crazy that we're in the 21st century, and we're going to go back to not allowing immigrants in our country.
Jon: Now we're going to go back 100 years. I'm trying to get a whole new perspective on everything. I don't think I like it at all.
Mitch Hendrickson, from California, 42: We have family that were immigrants—from Denmark, back in the 1850s or 1860s. I honestly was thinking of the irony of being here. I don't know if it gave me any new perspective.
To be honest, we've been in a little bit of a bubble, being here on vacation, but we've been hearing a little. I haven't formed a complete opinion [of Trump's policies] because I don't know all the facts, but I will say it's hard to find the facts because everything is so hyped, on both sides of the aisle. Lots of bias. That's my biggest problem right now, the bias.
Alexis Hendrickson, 13: All the protests are on Instagram. They're everywhere. We haven't quite gotten to Ellis Island in school yet, but I found it really interesting. Immigration, it's shaped our nation pretty much, and we're trying to limit it? Really?
Follow Jason Bergman on Instagram.