Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has exerted social influence on the United States since his college days. He converted to Islam while at UCLA, became a star actor while playing in the NBA and was named a cultural ambassador for the State Department during his post-playing career.

But none of that would have been possible if not for the leap of faith made by Abdul-Jabbar's paternal grandparents, Cyrus and Venus Alcindor, 100 years ago, when they immigrated from Trinidad to the United States.

"I've always understood myself to be a second-generation immigrant," Abdul-Jabbar says. "It fits in with so many other stories like it."

Abdul-Jabbar reminded the world of this Tuesday when he was honored at the 2017 Ellis Island Family Heritage Awards for his "major contributions to the American experience."

Ellis Island is no longer a landing spot for immigrants, but the museum and neighboring Statue of Liberty serve as the symbols of the experience. The setting gave Abdul-Jabbar -- along with fellow recipients Robin Roberts and the Tisch Family -- a forum to voice their opinions on immigration. In the first year of the Trump Presidency, the Muslim Ban and an emphasis on deporting immigrants has been met with mixed responses.

"Immigrants are being used as scapegoats for what's wrong in our country," Abdul-Jabbar says. "How can they be at blame if they're not even here? It's absurd. Immigration is one of the lifebloods of our country. All the ambitious, hard-working people that come in and support what we are trying to do here has always been a benefit to our country. Hopefully, we can figure out a way to clear that up and make that a smooth process.

"I think that the whole era of using immigrants as scapegoats has to stop. We have to give people an opportunity to come to our country and contribute. This paranoia about people is not justified."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robin Roberts, Tisch Family

Cyrus and Venus Alcindor left their home of Trinidad in 1917, traveling through Belize and British Honduras before reaching Mobile, Alabama. From the Deep South, the Alcindors traveled by train to Brooklyn, where they settled and had two children, Ferdinand and Viola. Ferdinand would marry Cora, and in 1947, gave birth to Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr.

Although Abdul-Jabbar's relatives did not pass through Ellis Island, he grew up nearby in New York City. Before going West for a career with UCLA, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar was the "The Tower from Power," earning national recognition at Power Memorial Academy in Manhattan. Abdul-Jabbar is widely regarded as the greatest high school player in New York City history, if not of all time.

The Ellis Island Family Heritage Awards are distributed by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 1982. The awards ceremony began in 2001, and past recipients include Bruce Springsteen, Madeline Albright, Jerry Seinfeld and Colin Powell. David Muir served as host for the ceremony Tuesday.

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