coming to ellis island
In August 1997 I made my first trip to Ellis Island, a strip of land off the tip
of Manhattan, near the Statue of Liberty. It was here that the federal gov-
ernment in 1892 opened a processing, detention, and deportation center
to deal with immigrants and other migrants arriving in the United States at
New York Harbor. In 1907, the center’s busiest year, as many as five thou-
sand migrants came through each day, primarily from Europe. Most were
admitted; only about 2 percent were refused entry. After 1924, with the pas-
sage of a new set of anti-immigration laws and the increasing role of embas-
sies in handling immigration, deporting immigrants rather than admitting
them began to become the site’s dominant function. By the time the cen-
ter closed in 1954 most of its functions had ceased, with the exception of
the medical work and experimentation at its hospitals (notably with shock
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared Ellis Island part of the
Statue of Liberty National Monument, but the significant restoration of its
buildings and grounds didn’t occur until the 1980s, when the Statue of
Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. (soleif) raised several hundred mil-
lion dollars for both restoration projects in conjunction with the statue’s
centennial. In 1990, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened in the
restored administration building. After an 1897 fire destroyed the origi-
nal building, a second structure was erected in 1897–1904. This building,
which stands today, is an imposing three-story French Renaissance struc-
ture intended to impress as well as accommodate those commanded to
enter it; the grandeur of its huge central registry room was later enhanced
by a tiled ceiling made by the same artisans famous for their work at Grand
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