To visit Ellis Island in New York Harbor you leave by boat (but not before a complete security check) from the southern tip of Manhattan and thus reverse the trip taken by millions of immigrants who arrived there toward the end of the 19th and the early years of the 20th Century. Their first stop after all was at the Immigrant processing center on the island. If they passed inspection – and overwhelmingly they did – they were then permitted to proceed across the harbor to the mainland.
Today, the Ellis Island facility after long years of neglect and decay has, as I discovered, been reconstructed and converted into a gem of a museum. Here it is possible to travel back in time, and thanks to wonderfully detailed photos, recordings, explanatory charts, research data bases and an abundance of immigrant artifacts, relive the process that preceded entry into America. But all this information and illustration would not have the same impact were it not for the fact that today’s visiting crowds could easily be substituted for the masses of humanity that flooded ashore over a century ago. I observe their excitement as they board the boat that will take them across the magnificent harbor with its spectacular view of lower Manhattan and onto Ellis Island. They’ve come from across the globe. I listen to their animated conversations overhear a medley of languages that defy easy recognition. I watch their expressions as the ship passes directly in front of the Statue of Liberty. Looking up at this world-renowned symbol of American freedom, they are transfixed, almost reverential, much as were the original immigrants. They rush to take photos of their companions and family members with Miss Liberty in the background until the boat gradually passes out of range.
Once inside the exhibition halls, they observe, they read, studiously absorbing the information presented. (Did you know that during the great period of immigration, about 2.5 million Canadians entered the United States?)
Some people have come to relive what relatives long ago must have experienced. And here is where Ellis Island succeeds best. It takes little imagination after visiting the various staging areas to sense the combination of anxiety, fear, hope, and exhilaration that each person no doubt felt as he or she stepped off the boat to begin the bewildering process – that would determine their destiny. True, only about 2% of those who arrived would be rejected (e.g., due to illness, trachoma, illiteracy, anarchist beliefs, etc.) and sent back across the Atlantic, but how could they know their fate as they waited amidst crowds (at peak periods, up to 5000 individuals passed through Ellis each day) to be observed, inspected, tested and questioned by strangers. And if they themselves were passed through, what assurance was there that all other family members would? And if one or more were detained would all then decide to return home? Recognizing that such a possibility existed was itself a painful burden.
Immigration is perhaps our finest and most inspiring story. Like no other place in the world the idea of America prompted millions upon millions to make the journey despite all the obstacles, known and unknown. Arriving at Ellis Island meant that they had reached the last stage of their epic trek. And based on what I saw and learned there the United States can take credit for organizing this final stage of the process so that it was properly efficient and largely respectful of those eager to become Americans.