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Exploring America’s Immigration Story

More than 25 million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island, in New York Harbor. Ellis Island was the place where the U.S. government processed their requests to stay in the country. This was their first step toward becoming U.S. citizens.

Ellis Island is the second-most-popular place to visit in the New York City area. The most popular is the Statue of Liberty.

Many people go to the island to learn about their ancestors and to understand why they decided to come to America.

The Ellis Island immigration center was a busy place from 1892 to 1954. It processed large numbers of immigrants during those years. Most of the new arrivals came from Europe.

But many people moved to North America before the U.S. government opened the center on Ellis Island and after it was closed. A new museum exhibition on the island tells about these immigrants. The exhibit cost $20 million to make. It is called “The Peopling of America.”

Stephen Briganti leads the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. He says Ellis Island is expanding the way it tells about immigration.

“A lot of people were coming here and saying, ‘Look there’s, there's nothing here for me. There's no, my story isn’t told here. Either I came early, or, more likely, I’ve come recently and you don't say anything about me.’ So, one, we wanted to remain relevant, and, two, we believed it was the right thing to tell the story -- the entire story -- and this was the right place to do it.”

The exhibit shows the earliest days of European exploration in North America. It also tells about colonization and the conflicts with Native Americans, who are often called Indians.

While most immigrants were free, many came as slaves. Others were indentured servants. They agreed to move to and work in America in exchange for their freedom. Clay Gish designed the exhibit. She says it was important to say not everyone was free.

“We had to deal with slavery. Some people were brought here against their wills, so that, but still they experienced a journey. They ended up having to adapt to this new land.”

A large part of the exhibit shows what happened in the years after 1954, when the Ellis Island center closed. Immigrants came -- and continue to come -- to the U.S. legally and illegally on airplanes or ships and on foot.

Michael Schneider designed the exhibit’s technology and media.

“...and then we tell the individual story through specific interviews with real immigrants and their experience of making the trips.”

“And I came to the United States from Nigeria to go to college, and then I went to graduate school at NYU.”

The new exhibit explores the changing face of immigration and the changing opinions of Americans on the issue.

Rita McGregor visited the new museum. She is from the western city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, just north of the Mexican border.

“I find it very interesting that we were so receptive to immigrants in the, a century ago, and now we do not treat them the same.”

Mr. Briganti says immigration is an important part of the American story. He says Americans sometimes make it difficult for immigrants to come to the U.S., but he says we are a nation of immigrants and we will continue to be.

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

Bernard Shusman reported this story from New York. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

relevant – adj. relating to a subject in an appropriate or useful way

entire – adj. complete or full; not lacking or leaving out any part

indentured servitude – n. a labor system in which people paid for their travel to the United States by working for an employer for a set number of years. The system was widely used in the 18th century in the British colonies in North America.

adapt – v. to change one’s behavior

specific – adj. clearly and exactly presented or stated

receptive – adj. willing to listen to or accept ideas or suggestions; willing to accept new situations

Do you want to come to the United States to live? Do you want to become an American citizen? Have you taken steps to do so? How does your country treat immigrants? We want to hear from you. Write your thoughts in the comments section.

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