“Through the blue door, please.”
This line from the movie Brooklyn, which incidentally we highly recommend, is said by an American immigration official at Ellis Island to Eilis Lacey (played wonderfully by Saoirse Ronan) after her long and uncomfortable boat trip to America. After Eilis is processed at immigration, and as she makes her way to the blue doors, we see behind those doors a bright and heavenly light shining down, signifying hope and new opportunities in America.
Ellis Island, where those blue doors welcomed immigrants for many years, is one of the most famous American immigration landmarks. This tiny island off the southeast tip of Manhattan served as the nation’s first federal immigration processing center from 1892 to 1954, and millions of Americans (including me) can trace their heritage to ancestors who first arrived here. The National Park Service recently opened the newly-renovated and expanded Ellis Island Museum after extensive damage by Hurricane Sandy, and I decided to check it out.
One sunny brisk morning, similar to the day Eilis Lacy arrived, I made my way out to Ellis Island on the ferry from Battery Park City, which coincidentally leaves from Castle Clinton, the nation’s original immigration processing center before immigration was federalized, necessitating the opening of the center at Ellis Island. I had bought my ticket for the ferry online beforehand, which I highly recommend as it allows you to skip a rather long line. After going through airport-style security—seriously, it’s pretty intense—I walked onto the ferry, which was violently knocking up against the pier as it sat moored at the dock. With each violent knock, people screamed. It was similar to the extensive rocking that Eilis faced on her trip to America, though luckily no one threw up or was seriously hurt. I was worried though about an elderly couple making their way across the top deck as the boat slammed against the wooden pier. Be careful, guys!
But we set off without any serious injuries. The first stop on the ferry ride is Liberty Island, home to a certain famous green sculpture, and while I did not get off to examine it up close, the views coming into dock were excellent. I, along with all the other tourists, were furiously snapping as many photos as possible of Lady Liberty. I can’t imagine getting any better views on the island itself, though climbing up to the top would be pretty fantastic. After a short wait, we took off for Ellis Island, only about five minutes away. As we pulled slowly toward the island, I thought about my own ancestors who entered the US through Ellis Island. What were their thoughts when they arrived? What hopes did they have? Dreams? Were they homesick? Glad to be away from Ireland? Those curious about their ancestors who entered the US through Ellis Island can search the passenger records online. This might apply to quite a few people, as descendants from these passengers account for over 100 million Americans, over a third of the population of the US. A lot of people went through those blue doors.
The Tour Begins
The Ellis Island Museum is located in the Main Building, a French Renaissance Revival structure that has been carefully restored to its classic 1918 to 1924 appearance. The idea behind the museum, as they explain, is to “tell stories” of the twelve million immigrants who entered America through Ellis Island. The forty-five-minute audio tour, available in nine languages and which I recommend, invites visitors “to relive the immigrant experience as if they were the ‘new arrival’ and is ideal for individuals with limited time.” The museum also has available a special children's tour, narrated by “Marty the Muskrat,” available in five languages, which I did not have a chance to listen to.
In the main lobby of the museum, I was immediately drawn to the World Migration Globe, a colorful sphere illustrating migration patterns around the world throughout human history. Here, and throughout my tour, I was impressed with the museum’s use of interactive exhibits as well as artifacts, photographs, prints, videos, and oral histories to bring the story of America’s immigration history alive.
After examining the globe, I began the tour with the exhibit “Journeys: The Peopling of America - 1550s – 1890,” which is dedicated to exploring the earliest arrivals pre-dating the Ellis Island era, acknowledging the native peoples inhabiting the land before the arrival of Europeans. The exhibit examines the root causes of migration, including famine, epidemics, natural disasters, and religious persecution—the most common—and also takes an honest look at the fraught and deadly relationship between the new arrivals to America and the native inhabitants, including a look at the Puritan massacre of a Pequot village. The exhibit also looks honestly at forced migration, namely the enslavement of peoples, predominately from Africa, who came to the US against their will. The exhibit also discusses the history of US immigration regulations, first in 1819 when Congress enacted legislation to require ship captains to submit a list of passengers information upon arrival to the US.
The Iconic Great Hall
Ellis Island's Great Hall is the heart of the tour. Faithfully restored to look as it did a century ago, the hall once had lines of immigrants speaking many different languages as they waited to be processed. Here I got a real sense of what it was like for the many immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. I also learned some interesting historical facts about immigration to the US:
- 20% of immigrants were detained at the Ellis Island hospital for further inspection. Most were allowed to go but a small percentage were returned to their country of origin;
- Immigrants could be denied entry for legal or medial reasons. Ellis Island's immigration inspectors were trained to try to keep out “undesirables” including the incurably ill, the impoverished, the disabled, criminals, and others barred by US immigration laws;
- Physicians had approximately six seconds to examine immigrants to decide to let them pass or have them sent to the hospital;
- Single female travelers could not leave Ellis Island until their safety was assured, usually with a male escort or family member;
- “Everybody was frightened” at Ellis Island, according to one immigrant;
- Under the Alien Contract Labor Law, immigrants were forbidden to have a labor contract with a US employer in order to stop importation of cheap labor;
- There were twenty-nine possible questions an inspector would ask an immigrant, but they would usually ask only a few;
- Immigrants typically had to have $25 to prove they were economically sufficient;
- One third of immigrants who came through Ellis Island stayed in New York City area;
- Mental fitness tests included a common cube test, where the immigrant had to touch sides of cubes in the same order as the inspector.
Another exhibit that I really enjoyed was “The Journey: New Eras of Immigration,” a newly added exhibit focusing on immigration from 1954 to present times. This exhibit smartly and effectively uses media and interactive elements to explain the post-war immigration movement and changing demographic trends over the decades. It gives a strong visual presentation to the impact of the landmark immigration bill signed by President Eisenhower in 1954, and also showed how the immigration process has changed from a central processing location in Ellis Island to immigrant visas issued by US Embassies/Consulates around the world. In these modern times, many immigrants first experience America through our airports and lines at Customs and Border Protection. The only time they might see the Statue of Liberty is from the sky. And no blue doors, sadly, but we hope the light in America still shines brightly for all who come here.