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Top>Research>America and the Ellis Island National Monument


Yuki Oda

Yuki Oda [profile]

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America and the Ellis Island National Monument

Yuki Oda
Assistant professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Modern American History and American Regional Research


Speaking of famous New York landmarks, the Statue of Liberty will probably come to the minds of many. However, the fact that the Statue of Liberty National Monument consists of not only the Statue of Liberty and Liberty Island, but also two islands about 1km away, including Ellis Island, is probably not well known in Japan. 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the addition of Ellis Island to the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965. Here, I would like to introduce the formation of the image of America as a “country of immigrants” and the connection to Ellis Island’s designation as a national monument.

The era of mass immigration and immigration restrictions

Ellis Island, where the Immigrant Museum currently stands, is the site where the U.S Government built immigration inspection facilities in 1892. In the federation that was America, Relations between state governments and the federal government in immigration governance were not clear until the second half of the 19th century. After the push towards centralization of power in the federal government in 1890, the Ellis Island immigration inspection station was the first full-scale federal facility built in the nation’s most important port, New York. Passengers in first and second class on passenger ships crossing the Atlantic were inspected onboard and given priority to enter Manhattan. After that, third class and lower class passengers disembarked at Ellis Island and were forced to wait in line for inspection. On the island was a physical examination room, interrogation room and hospital where people were made to stay for further questioning or if they were sick. Those denied entry were put back on a ship bound for Europe, making Ellis Island a place full of anxiety.

Behind the construction of this facility was an increase in the number of immigrants. From the end of the 19th century to the start of the 20th century was the peak of immigration from Europe to the States, with 3.58 million in 1890-99, 7.57 million in 1900-09 and 5 million in 1910-19. The majority of immigrants came from eastern and southern European countries such as Austria-Hungary, Russia and Italy, but with a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, the terms were created to distinguish immigrants. The terms were “new immigrants” for those coming from eastern and southern Europe at the start of the 20th century, and “old immigrants” for those coming from England and Germany before the middle of the 19th century, with immigration restrictions targeting the new immigrants being discussed.

Then, after the First World War, Congress decided, for the first time since the founding of the nation, to implement restrictions on immigration from Europe, voting to pass a law decreasing immigrant numbers from a prewar total of 1 million immigrants a year to 150,000. This was the greatest transformation in the history of the United States of America. The new system introduced differing upper limits depending on the rank of country of birth. On one hand, England, the birthplace of America’s founding fathers secured more visas than the actual demand, with other countries having as little as 100 people a year given entry permission, making it a highly discriminatory situation. With sudden drop in immigrant numbers, the role of Ellis Island also decreased. After being used exclusively as a Coast Guard training center during the Second World War, it was closed in 1954.

The theory of America, the land of immigrants

The incorporation of Ellis Island into the Statue of Liberty National Monument was announced by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. The Statue of Liberty, which was built in 1886, was designated as a national monument in 1924 as a symbol of US-French friendship and republicanism. Then, since the 1930s, the Statue of Liberty gradually became to be spoken of as a symbol welcoming immigrants.[1]However, at the time of its closure, Ellis Island was not deemed worthy as national monument, a place that should be remembered and preserved in American history. The National Park Service, which managed national monuments, felt that Ellis Island was only a group of buildings that had fallen into disuse, and by 1962, the government held four auctions in a plan to sell the island to private companies for housing land development.

After the end of the Second World War, immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, and the second and third generations coming together and strongly asserting that America was a “land of immigrants” had a serious bearing on the preservation of Ellis Island. It wasn’t until after the war when research on immigration was recognized as a legitimate research topic in American history academic circles and history courses. Early research was intended for immigrants from Europe, and many of the researchers were children or grandchildren of immigrants who came to America in the late 19th to early 20th century. That academic activity was also an attempt to have the eastern and southern European immigrants who faced discrimination and regulations as “new immigrants” woven into American history.

In that context, Ellis Island was given a new meaning as a place symbolizing America, “the land of immigrants.” For example, Harvard University historian Oscar Handlin, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Uprooted(1952, a book about immigrants at the turn of the century), demanded that Ellis Island, as the place where immigrants at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century first landed in America, be likened to Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the pilgrims first landed in 1620, and preserved as a place to be remembered in American history. In President Johnson’s national monument designation speech, while reciting the names of distinguished people, starting with composer Irving Berlin, known for composing the Second World War patriotic song “God Bless America” and immigrated from Russia in 1893, extolled that the United States of America was built by the 16 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. Along with the revision of the immigration law that ranked country of birth by the Congress in the same year, it was a symbolic gesture towards the immigrants from eastern and southern Europe and their descendants.

Opening of the Immigration Museum

Although it was designated as a national monument, it took a further ten years before the island was opened to the general public. Even though a plan for a giant park designed by architect Philip Johnson had been announced in 1966, due to a rise in war funds for the Vietnam War, the budget was put under pressure and the plan never materialized. More than that, even maintenance of the existing buildings was under threat. Through fundraising by a citizen’s group that was worried that they would fall into disrepair without any visitors, the island became accessible by ferry in 1976 after limited repairs, however, visitors had to be careful of the rotting floors while walking.

Ellis Island was put in the spotlight again in the 1980s during the Ronald Reagan administration. In 1982, President Reagan announced a plan to repair Liberty Island by the centenary of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, and Ellis Island by the 500th anniversary in 1992 of Columbus’ landing in the new world. By becoming a part of these commemorative events, Ellis Island once again became a symbol of the “land of immigrants”, and in 1990, part of the former immigration inspection building was opened as the Immigrant Museum.

Ellis Island of today

Today, the area has become a major tourist spot, with 4 million annual visitors to the Statue of Liberty and over 3 million visiting Ellis Island. The ferry from Manhattan heads to Ellis Island after stopping at Liberty Island. The first thing at the museum the visitors see when they come off the ferry is the permanent exhibition titled “Peopling of America” (opened in 2011), which touches on immigration from the colonial days until the closure of Ellis Island in 1954. On Ellis Island, in addition to the exhibitions, a structure has been set up where visitors, who have ancestors who originally crossed the Atlantic, can link their own family history to the history of Ellis Island. Tracing one’s roots is popular in America, and public lectures on how to investigate your family history are held in archives throughout the country. Of those, the Ellis Island database is enormous, with the records of the 51 million people who underwent immigration inspections, including short-term stayers such as ship crew, being digitalized. And then, by entering various clues such as family name, year of immigration and country of birth into the website, not only can you see the records of your own ancestors, but you can also view photographs of the ship they crossed the Atlantic on. Also, in front of the museum, from where you can see Manhattan in the distance, is a monument where you can have your family’s name engraved for a set fee. At the moment, 700,000 names have been engraved, and that number continues to grow. In these ways, various devices have been provided where you can confirm your own family’s links to Ellis Island.

As 2015 is the 50th anniversary of Ellis Island’s designation as a national monument and the amendments to the Immigration Law, various commemorative events have been planned. At the museum, the exhibits will be expanded, with the opening of a new permanent exhibition on immigrants from 1954 to the present. Since the second half of the 20th century, a large number of immigrants have come from Latin America and Asia, and there is bound to be lively debates surrounding the manner of the new exhibit and the history to be displayed there. Please be sure to go to this museum if you have a chance to visit New York.

  1. ^John Higham, translated by Makoto Saito, Hitoshi Abe and Jun Furuya:Send These to Me – Immigrants in Urban America (Heibosha, 1994), Chapter 3The Transformation of the Statue of Liberty
Yuki Oda
Assistant professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Modern American History and American Regional Research
Yuki Oda was born in Kanagawa in 1980. He graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo in 2003.
He completed Master’s degree at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo in 2005.
He completed doctorate at Columbia University in 2014. He holds Ph.D. (History)
He assumed his current position in 2014.
He is currently researching immigrant rights in America from the viewpoint of human rights standards. Major publications include, Generations: Rethinking Age and Citizenship (coauthor, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2015)