Ellis Island





David Whitley is moved to tears at the tiny island in New York Harbor that provided the first taste of America for millions of people.


The start point

Shouty right-wing America may try and claim that the country rose to greatness on many things – low taxation, a mythical set of shared values, the will of God, you name it. But if there is one fundamental reason that the US has become the sole world superpower it is today, it is mass immigration.


Don’t believe me? Then take a trip to Ellis Island. This tiny island in New York Harbor (although technically part of New Jersey) was, for so many new Americans, where it all began. Between 1892 and 1924, over twelve million immigrants came through Ellis Island – the country’s primary registration centre and checkpoint. Today, at least 100m Americans are descended from someone who was processed there. These days the island is a big museum and monument to those who flooded in from across the world – and if there’s a more moving place in the entire country, then I’d love to see it.


Open door immigration

The Ellis Island story starts with the open door immigration policy of the 19th century. Politicians realised that the American population was small, and that more people were needed in order to build a strong economy. It was an open invite to the rest of the world to come and emigrate. And the rest of the world took it with open arms. Some came to flee religious persecution in their homelands, some came for the adventure and others came to escape often miserable conditions. None knew what they were really letting themselves in for when they arrived, but arrive they did – often with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.


After journeys of a week or more on cramped steamships, they would enter New York Harbor, greeted by the Statue of Liberty and stunned by the Manhattan skyline to their right. As a number of first-hand accounts within the museum indicate, the poor, huddled masses and never seen anything like it before. The giant registration hall at Ellis Island was the last hurdle. It was where papers, criminal records and appearance were checked. Those deemed of poor character or poor health would face the heartbreak of being sent back. The rest would be passed through, left to fend for themselves, buying train tickets to places that were just names in a language they didn’t understand.


An emotional journey

Walking through that hall still has you choking back the tears. It’s an incredibly atmospheric place, and it is surrounded by a series of rooms that concentrate on one aspect or other of the immigration wave. Ellis Island is one of those places where it’s almost unnecessary to read anything – the wealth of old photographs and archive video footage are more than enough to tell the story of hope, fear and speculation. You can see the thoughts running between those black and white eyes. But some of the quotes from those immigrants, now either extremely elderly or dead, make you well up. “It means more to me than my native land,” says one voice.


Another response to the intelligence test, designed to weed out the mentally ill, is telling. When asked whether she would clean the stairs from the top or from the bottom, she responded: “I didn’t come to America to wash stairs.” Perhaps she didn’t, but the story is so often the same. Each wave of immigrants would be blamed by the previous ones for perceived increases in crime, and would have to survive by doing the manual jobs that no-one else wanted to do. The American bed of roses was often full of thorns. As one old Italian tale plastered on the wall says: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things. First, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second they weren’t paved at all; and third, I was expected to pave them.” In a nutshell, that is the Ellis Island story. But the Ellis Island story is also the country’s, and a hundred million separate tales stem from there.


Disclosure: David was a guest of Nycgo.com, and had a New York City Pass (Citypass.com/NewYork). He stayed at the Hilton Gardens Staten Island (Hiltongardeninn.Hilton.com) and the Affinia Dumont (Affinia.com) in Manhattan.


Read An immigrant’s tale : The foreigners that keep the US moving - Part 2 here