One need only tread the length and breadth of the cavernous reception hall on the second floor of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum to appreciate what it must have been like to land on America’s safe shores and still not to know whether you could stay.
That’s what happened sometimes when a putative immigrant’s dream of living in freedom was jeopardized by an infectious illness or legal status judged too serious to warrant admission.
Visiting the museum off the southern tip of Manhattan late last summer, my wife, kids and I saw visitors and tourists by the hundreds streaming through this magnificent edifice, its reception hall – also called the Registry Room or Great Hall – capacious and accommodating.
But what made the tour so real in the mind’s eye was to imagine the hall when it was in use a century ago, with an unending cascade of immigrants streaming through day after day, by the thousands, cheek by jowl, confused and exhausted, speaking a Babel of languages, being pushed and prodded along step by step for up to five hours by immigration officials until reaching the exit – the gateway to freedom and the New World.
The era and the legacy of Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954 – after 12 million souls were processed there – is truly brought to life at the museum, only a few minutes away from Manhattan’s Battery Park by ferry, and part of the ferry round trip that includes the Statue of Liberty.
As the Ellis Island website (http://ellisisland.org/) and tour point out, not every immigrant had to withstand arduous processing. Those travelling with first- and second-class tickets needed only a cursory once-over by inspectors. They weren’t asked to go through Ellis Island, presumably because only the healthy could afford such tickets in the first place. But if you arrived in New York Harbor by steerage, like most of the teeming millions of Jews, Italians and others, then it was Ellis Island for you, for medical and legal inspection.
The first stop was the Great Hall, where doctors gave prospective immigrants a cursory “six-second physical,” looking for obvious physical afflictions, anything from goiters and varicose veins, according to the website and tour.
Then inspectors would ask each one 29 questions, with colleagues on hand whom, if you were lucky, spoke one of the languages of the immigrants.
The tour makes clear that even though this was a poor and desperate lot, they were treated respectfully. Even those whose right to stay was questioned received a full hearing before a tribunal, with legal representation. At the museum you can still peer through the window of the room where these hearings were held and imagine what the state of mind must have been for those whose fates hung so precariously in the balance.
Amazingly, though, only two per cent of all potential immigrants were sent back, due to having a contagious disease such as trachoma, or if there was good reason to believe an immigrant would end up a “public charge.” The peak immigration year for Ellis Island was 1907, with 1.25 million immigrants processed, and the most active years were from 1892 to the mid-1920s, after which the island became mostly a detention and deportation centre.
Still, Ellis Island’s legacy endures. Notables who passed through ranged from Cary Grant, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edward G. Robinson and Irving Berlin to Isaac Asimov, Enrico Caruso, Sigmund Freud, Bob Hope and Lucky Luciano. Funds raised through a joint Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation set up in 1982 serve as source of funding to maintain two of America’s great historical monuments.
The timeworn baggage that is stacked in the museum’s entrance hall serves as a permanent reminder of lives left behind in the Old World.
Visitors to the island can search for passengers through computerized ship manifests or gather at a special pillar where family members held emotional reunions, sometimes after years apart. It was dubbed the “kissing post.”