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The Lasting Appeal of Ellis Island

Has visiting Ellis Island become a more difficult journey for tourists than it was for immigrants?

February 1, 2003

Has visiting Ellis Island become a more difficult journey for tourists than it was for immigrants?

Ellis Island, in New York's harbor area, was chosen by the U.S. government back in 1890 to process all those throngs of new immigrants flocking to the United States.

The arrival center opened two years later. And for 64 years thereafter, it functioned as the world's most famous immigration center in the world, it processed some 12 million new arrivals.

As an island, it was an ideal location to quarantine immigrants who might carry dangerous diseases. Many American families of European origin can trace their roots in North America back to a forefather who managed to pass the health inspection there on the island.

Eventually, the government decided that it was no longer necessary to have such an offshore facility. Ellis Island officially closed its doors on November 29, 1954.

Once abandoned, the buildings fell into ever more disrepair. In 1984, the island underwent a $170 million restoration — and re-opened as a museum in 1990. Since then, over 4 million visitors per year have been coming to see it.

Hundreds of thousands of them are foreigners or recent immigrants to the United States. Curiously enough, more people have visited Ellis Island over the past decade than the 12 million who were actually processed there as newcomers.

And, since the new arrivals to Ellis Island were exclusively European and white, there certainly has been a much wider variety of countries, nationalities and races represented among the tourists.

The picture one gets by visiting Ellis Island is fairly rosy. It's an extremely kids-friendly place, as such theme parks typically are in the United States.

Actually, kids of all ages enjoy plugging into the special database to look up the names of their ancestors or relatives who had emigrated to the United States from the Old World.

While the treatment of the "tired, poor, huddled masses" was quite humane by the standard of the day, nonetheless it is doubtful that the immigrants much enjoyed their stay on Ellis Island. Some, in fact, were able to avoid it — richer immigrants could get processed by government officials on board the arriving ship.

Once on Ellis Island, a typical immigrant rarely found the process to be smooth sailing. He or she had to go through an extensive interviewing process. Those who appeared sick were subjected to a battery of medical tests.

There were delays when there were no relatives or friends to pick up new immigrants, or if they had no money. About 2% of all immigrants processed at the facility — or 240,000 people — were turned back. In fact, immigrants nicknamed Ellis Island "Heartbreak Island" — because so many saw their dream of coming to America get shattered at its very doorstep.

Now, however, those who want to visit Ellis Island face a very different problem — a long wait and security checks. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Ellis Island-Liberty Island museum complex was shut down for three months.

Since it has been reopened, security has been even tighter than at the airports. Those who want to get on the ferry to Ellis Island have to wait for at least an hour — and much longer during peak tourist seasons, such as Christmas vacation.

They have to go through metal detectors, submit bags and pocketbooks to thorough inspection and get their shoes checked for explosives.

Gone are the days when the Statue of Liberty was the favorite venue for self-promoters and adventurers of all kinds, who loved to climb it, or hang-glide and parachute on it. You would probably get shot by FBI agents attempting to do something like that.

Of course, some security precautions should be taken in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. But the U.S. government and the National Park Service appear to be going way overboard — and throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Not surprisingly, the number of visitors to Ellis Island has dropped drastically. While in the eight months before September 11, 4 million tourists visited the museum complex, in all of 2002 only 2.5 million did so — despite a huge burst of patriotism and grass-roots appreciation of American liberty which followed the terrorist attacks.