Broadcast: November 3, 2003
Millions of people came through Ellis Island on their way to new lives in the United States. I’m Steve Ember.
And I’m Faith Lapidus. Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA, from VOA Special English. This week, we take you to Ellis Island and tell about efforts to save more of this historic place.
Ellis Island is in New York Harbor, near the Statue of the Liberty and the tall buildings of New York City. For years it was America's major immigration center. Twelve-million people arrived at Ellis Island between eighteen-ninety-two and nineteen-twenty-four. They came on ships from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Russia and many other countries.
About forty percent of Americans have at least one family member who passed through Ellis Island.
The immigration center closed in nineteen-fifty-four. The buildings fell into disrepair.
In the nineteen-eighties, a private group, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, led a restoration campaign. Lee Iacocca, a leader in the automobile industry, directed the effort. This work rescued one-third of the island from ruin.
Ellis Island reopened, this time as a museum and memorial. Since nineteen-ninety, the National Park Service has operated this restored area for visitors.
Today there is another organization. It is called Save Ellis Island! This group is working to restore the remaining two-thirds of the island. The goal is to raise three-hundred-million dollars to pay for the work.
Save Ellis Island! also wants to establish a research center. This institute would study such issues as immigration policy and public health. Judith McAlpin is president of the group. She points out that for sixty years, the island served many different groups of people.
Judith McAlpin says the lessons learned by immigration and public health officials could be valuable today. The institute would also have exhibits and performances about the history of Ellis Island.
VOICE ONE: The Save Ellis Island! organization is working to raise money from public and private givers. At the same time, the National Park Service is completing a project to prevent further damage to the island. The Park Service, Congress and the state of New Jersey are paying for the project.
About twenty-thousand square meters of Ellis Island lie in the state of New York. The remainder -- eighty-nine-thousand square meters -- is in New Jersey.
The project in the nineteen-eighties restored three buildings on the New York side. One of the buildings contains a huge room, the Great Hall. Each month, thousands of people visit these buildings.
But twenty-nine buildings on the New Jersey side are closed to the public. Weeds cover much of the area. Some buildings are falling apart. They include the three buildings in what is called the Main Hospital Complex.
All of the immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island had to have a health examination. People could not enter the country if they were sick or pregnant. They were offered care at the hospital buildings. Most were later permitted to enter the country. More than three-hundred-fifty babies were born on Ellis Island.
But over the years, about three-thousand-five-hundred immigrants died on Ellis Island. It became the final resting place for their dreams of life in America.
The year is long ago. A ship sails into New York Harbor. Passengers crowd each other to see the Statue of Liberty. The statue stands with her arm raised high. In her hand is a light, to represent freedom.
Now the people are marched off the ship to a small island. Everyone feels tense. This place – Ellis Island – is a door to an unknown world. No one can be sure what is on the other side.
The immigrants enter a big building. It is made of red brick and stone. It looks like the home of a king. Inside, the immigrants climb steps to the Great Hall. Doctors and nurses examine them closely. Anyone who shows signs or sickness might be sent back home.
Medical inspectors mark the clothes of those with possible health problems. An “E” means eye trouble. An “H” means heart disease. An “X” means mental disorders.
Next comes a different kind of inspection. Officials sit at tall tables at one end of the Great Hall. They ask questions, quickly. “Do you have a job? Do you have money? Can you read and write?”
Hundreds of immigrants wait their turn in the Great Hall. Sunlight flows in through the windows, big and rounded. Outside, across the water, the people can see the tall buildings of New York City.
The Great Hall is noisy with the sounds of different languages. There are joyful meetings. Family members and friends welcome new arrivals from the old country.
The inspections usually last a few hours. Then the immigrants walk down a set of steps. These are called the “Stairs of Separation.”
The steps to the left lead to the boat to New York City. The steps on the right lead to the railroad office. Immigrants can buy a ticket to travel to other parts of the United States.
The steps in the middle are for those who must stay temporarily on Ellis Island. About twenty percent remain for several days or weeks. Some are sick. Others are held for legal reasons.
Two percent of the people are sent home. Most often, these people have diseases that can spread. Some people are sent back because they have no money or job skills. Some are unmarried women, traveling alone. Some are criminals. Some have unpopular political ideas.
Many immigrants permitted to stay in the United States did not stay for long. One of every three who came to America during the nineteen-hundreds chose to return home.
During the early nineteen-hundreds, five-thousand immigrants moved through the immigration center on Ellis Island almost every day. There were thirty-three buildings where people ate, slept and received medical care.
Representatives of forty religious, cultural and social service agencies worked on Ellis Island. These groups helped immigrants find work or join family members already in the United States.
Some people called Ellis Island the “Island of Tears.” There were not enough beds for everyone. The food was often bad. Those who had to stay waited days or weeks without knowing what would happen to them.
Nineteen-oh-seven was the busiest year on Ellis Island. More than one-million immigrants passed through. At the time, America needed workers. Immigrants were accepted quickly.
Then, an anti-immigration movement arose. Congress passed laws to restrict immigration for people of some ancestries and national groups.Some immigrants continued to come to America through Ellis Island after nineteen-twenty-four. But most already had been approved for immigration at American embassies in their home countries. The government began to use Ellis Island mostly as a holding place for illegal immigrants.
The United States government finally closed the immigration center on Ellis Island in nineteen-fifty-four. The wet air of the harbor had begun to destroy the buildings. Workers spent two years just drying the main building.
The workers found places where immigrants had written on the walls as they waited for word of their future. There were little pictures, poems and prayers.
In the nineteen-eighties, President Ronald Reagan called for the repair and restoration of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. He wanted to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the statue in nineteen-eighty-six. The work cost more than four-hundred-fifty-million dollars.
Today, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum stands as a memorial to honor all immigrants.
One of the structures on Ellis Island is the Ferry Building. This was where immigrants permitted to enter the country could get on a boat to New York City. It was built in nineteen-thirty-five during the Great Depression. Last year, public and private money restored the Ferry Building. But a boat still lies on its side in the water, at least for now.
Many people who visit Ellis Island today say they hope it can be completely restored. They want the nation to remember the part that this island played in the largest movement of people in recorded history.
Our program was written by Shelley Gollust and Jerilyn Watson. I’m Steve Ember.
And I’m Faith Lapidus. Listen again next week for another report about life in the United States, on the VOA Special English program THIS IS AMERICA.