A short boat trip south of Manhattan you reach a small island – the tiny Ellis Island used to be the most important international border crossing in the world for a bit over ½ a century starting in 1892. The island starter out as a smaller island than today but it was enlarged with land reclamation – hence the island became large enough to service the demands of the immigration authorities in New York. No less than 12 million poor immigrants from Europe went through at this spot to start a new life in America with the record being set in 1907 with more than one million people going through the immigration at Ellis Island with the record for day set April 17 with 11,747 people. Of the people living in USA today more than 100,000,000 people can trace an ancestor who arrived at Ellis Island.
It was only the poor people who went through the immigration at Ellis Island – people arrived on first or second class on the great ocean liners went through immigration on the boats. Only the people who travelled on third class or deck class had to go to Ellis Island. Today immigration in the New York area has been moved to the airports and hardly anybody arrives by boat – so the old immigration hot spot went out of service in 1954 and has been converted into a museum about the immigration to America.
You arrive at the museum by boat either from New York via Liberty Island or from New Jersey. When you get to the island you will see the big building which housed the immigration procedures just next to the ferry departure point.
When you go inside the big building you step into a big room with high ceiling and you can see some old suitcases displayed in the room representing the luggage of the people just coming off the boat. If you go to the right you can pick up an audio guide before you start your visit of the building. It is useful to get the guide before you start so you can hear a bit of the different rooms of the exhibition.
At the ground floor you will find an exhibition of the general immigration to America through the centuries – it is an interesting exhibit with lot of information about the people arriving in the new world. You will also find a café and a movie theater at the ground level. But the main exhibit is the first floor which is dedicated to the history of the immigration at Ellis Island.
When you walk up the stair to the first floor you get into a very large room – it is the registry room. In this room the poor people coming off the boat went to the immigration. A lot of people would arrive at the same time so there could be a long wait. The new arrivals usually didn’t speak any English – but that wasn’t a big problem back in the day – the new arrivals were met by staff who would speak the language of the countries of the people waiting to be processed. The language abilities of Americans has certainly gone downhill since those times – I doubt you can use anything but English at the immigration in Kennedy Airport today.
It was probably scary for the people waiting in line. If they didn’t get through the immigration they would be returned to the place they came from with no hope of a better future. Most people spend 2 to 5 hours to go through immigration – to go through you had to answer 29 questions including your name, your occupations and how much cash you got, there was also question questions if you had been in an insane asylum and if you were an anarchist. I guess a yes to the last two questions wouldn’t be beneficial for your chances of getting through the immigration. About 80 percent of the people process in the large registry room were allowed into America without further investigation and could take the ferry to New Jersey or New York to catch a connection to wherever they wanted to go. The rest would have to go through further medical test or hearings to determine if they would become a burden on USA if allow inside the country.
The last 20 percent of the immigrants had to go through different medical test or other inspections. If there was some problems the immigrant would be marked with a chalk sign which was a simple code like E for eye problems, K for hernia and the dreaded x for mental defect of some sort which could include depression and epilepsy. Moral defects could also prevent you from being allowed inside USA – the moral defects included homosexuality, impoverished and criminals. If you were not allowed into the USA you were allowed a hearing before a tribunal before the final decision was made. After the extra checks and hearings of the immigrants were done a further 18 percent were allowed into the country. In the end only 2 percent of the people arriving at Ellis Island were deported back to their port of origin – but this could mean breaking up a family where some family members were allowed into USA and one were returned to the home country to an uncertain faith.
The first floor of the building is the most interesting – but if you are still interested in more you can walk up to the second floor where there are extra exhibitions and a good view of the registry room from above. There is also a Bob Hope Library named after one of the most notable people who arrived in USA at Ellis Island.
I think it is possible to get the highlights of the museum in 1-2 hours but if you got the time and are really interested it is possible to spend a full day on a trip to Liberty Island and Ellis Island. We kept it down to half a day but we didn’t go into details with everything.
Long after Ellis Island stopped being used as an immigration station it has been involved in a dispute between New York and New Jersey about which state could actually claim the island as part of their territory. The original island was granted to New York in 1834 by an act of Congress – despite the fact the island is located in New Jersey waters. The original island has later been expanded through extensive landfills and New Jersey claim the reclaimed land was part of their territory. In a Supreme Court ruling from 1998 the Supreme Court found that the reclaimed parts of Ellis Island did in fact belong to New Jersey and only the part of the island which existed in 1834 would still belong to New York. Today 80 percent of Ellis Island is actually in New Jersey today. When you walk out of the ferry you will be on reclaimed land – hence in Jersey this is also the case when you go up to the door of the main building and walk inside to get the free audio tour. When you go to the other side of the main entrance hall to reach the area where the rangers are sitting you will move from Jersey and into New York state – and when you walk into the area with the exhibition on the ground level it is all in New York. On the first floor when you walk into the great Registry Room you will be going back forward between New York and New Jersey repeatedly if you walk around for a while.