The 2017 recipients of the Ellis Island Medals of Honor gathered Saturday for a brief and rainy pilgrimage to the island that served as the landing point for the ancestors of an estimated 40% of Americans. A ceremony there celebrated the origins of American leaders across a variety of disciplines, emphasizing the strength that diversity brings to the United States economy and society.
The 31st iteration of the awards, presented by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO), took place amid a fierce national—and international—debate about immigration. Nasser J. Kazimeny, the NECO chairman, began the ceremony with a call for the honorees to “help us build a more inclusive and peaceful world.”
A handful of the recipients spoke about their own experiences with immigration, heritage, success, and the American dream.
Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsico
“[America] was founded on a promise, the simple yet powerful promise that it doesn’t matter what you look like, where you come from, how you worship or who you love, all of us are Americans. All of us are equal and all of us have the right to reach for our dreams. That’s the promise that brought waves of immigrants to our shores in search of opportunity, from the earliest days of the republic to today. And that’s the promise that brought me and my husband here so many decades ago.
This country has afforded my family so many blessings over the years. In a way, we have lived the American dream and I’ll continue to do everything I can, as a CEO and a citizen, to extend that dream to all Americans, to advance the ideals that we are celebrating tonight and to uphold the beautiful, powerful promise etched into our constitution 230 years ago.”
Emile Haddad, CEO of FivePoint Holdings, LLC
“Thirty-one years ago, a young man left Lebanon with his parents to join his brother in this country in search of a safer life. They came with nothing but each other and a lot of gratitude… Well that young man, who is not so young anymore, was joined by his life partner three days ago as they stood on the perch of the New York Stock Exchange, rang the bell and took their company public. So for those who question the health of the American dream, I stand here in front of you as undisputed proof that the American dream is still well and alive.”
Mindy Grossman, CEO of HSN, Inc. (soon to be CEO of Weight Watchers)
“If you believe passionately, act with integrity and take personal ownership of the impact of your decisions, have the ability to look at yourself in the eyes and admit when you are wrong, the rewards are that much greater than if you never had the courage to make bold moves, affect transformation, or ultimately strive to have a positive impact on your life as well as the life of others.
[My parents] allowed me to truly live the American dream. There’s one more gift that will be ongoing, the gift of being in a position to create change, of being a woman who can make difference and have a lasting impact.”
Ohio Governor John Kasich
“We wonder about the divisions in our country today. We wonder about the squabbling. We wondering about the debate over immigrants. You see, what the lord teaches us, no matter which of the religions we celebrate is love god, which brings about humility. And love your neighbor as you love yourself. And if you love your neighbor as you love yourself you could never turn their boats away.”
Patricia de Stacy Harrison, CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting
“I’m so proud to lead an organization, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, that is dedicated through public media to telling the increasingly diverse voices’ stories of all Americans, especially those who are new to this country and appreciate so much the freedoms we have.”
Amir Dossal, CEO of the Global Partnerships Forum
“The world is in turmoil and the only way we can be successful is by collaboration. We really need to be colorblind and without borders and think of others and how we can make a difference for them.”
Emmanuelle Charpentier, Ph.D., inventor of CRISPR-Cas9
“After doing science in nine institutions in five countries, I know about mobility and international exchange. These exchanges bring fresh ideas, new perspectives and different ways of approaching problems, which are all catalysts for the innovation which fuels the economy and help us meet global challenges, ranging from climate change to fossil fuel dependence and infectious diseases.
Perhaps more subtly, these interactions show us that even with our different cultures, ethnicities and nationalities, the reasons for us to work together far outweigh those that might drive us apart. Even in this uncertain times, if not because of them, I would encourage all countries and especially America, to keep an open door to international scientists.”