New York City, New York, USA
As a native New Yorker, I’m sometimes unsure of how famous Ellis Island is. All New Yorkers know it. Do all Americans know it? What about the Irish, who lost a remarkable percentage of their population to American immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries? Or the Italians, who followed close behind? As a tourist attraction, it’s usually tacked onto a two-stop ferry tour where the Statue of Liberty is the real star of the show. But despite its second-tier status behind attractions like Liberty Island and Times Square, Ellis Island saw New York City through a complete transformation of its demographics and its culture; Arguably more impressive than a nine story Cola Cola billboard on 42nd Street, yes?
Located at the mouth of the Hudson River in New York harbor, Ellis Island was an immigration processing center that operated for 62 years, welcoming the biggest wave of European immigrants in US history (yes, I realize that “US History” is not a particularly long story). According to the stats, more than 100 million Americans today— 30% of the population— can trace their ancestry to the immigrants who came in via Ellis Island, which does explain people’s fondness for the place. But if the archives don’t contain information on your great grandmother or any clues about your weird last name, maybe the most compelling reason to visit now is to get a history lesson on free movement in the age just before passports, visas, and “national security” took over the world.
The museum gives an honest rundown of the immigration experience for most people, detailing the medical examinations and interviews conducted under the daunting prospect of deportation. You’ll learn that most first and second class passengers never had to pass through inspection at all. You’ll learn that many were detained for weeks due to routine illnesses, and women traveling alone were often detained in the absence of a male relative who could receive them. In short, the cruelties of immigration were not sugar-coated. But it does focus on the era of open door immigration, when the vast majority of passengers were ultimately let through. In 1924 the golden door was slammed shut on Asians (aimed at Chinese and Japanese people), Jews, and Slavic communities. In the following years, Ellis Island was used to imprison and deport suspected communists and political radicals, a practice which continued into the Cold War. When the center was finally closed in 1954, a lot of people were glad to see it go.
Still, the tone of the museum is not exactly one of nostalgia, but of dutiful consideration for the dark side of US history. It’s not a celebration of the United States as a beacon of hope where all nationalities are welcomed with open arms; Its focus is squarely on the people who did become Americans, but who suffered in order to do so.