5 Sep 2008

Ellis Island

Ellis Island rather than the Statue of Liberty should be the symbol for Amrika. Since the country prides itself as a nation built by immigrants this should be its temple. (The official version is that the Native Americans were just hanging around doing nothing - it is the whites, blacks and coloured people who built this nation).

Ellis Island is a small piece of land just off Manhattan which witnessed the largest influx of immigrants into the US of Amrika. It had the largest immigration office in the world in the first half of the 20th century. Today almost a third of the people living in the States have a relative who landed here, got his papers checked and walked into the country. However one visit to the place makes us realized that even a hundred years back coming into the country was a tough job.

A trip to the Island also involves an optional trip to the Lady with the Torchlight but I decided to give that a miss. A group of women from the Pakistan agreed with me when they were told that no one was allowed to climb up the statue due to security restrictions. What is the point of getting off to look at the statue if you have a better view from the ferry?

At Ellis Island the huge building has been restored into a museum. As you enter you see a display of luggage and household stuff that immigrants brought on ships. When the passengers entered they had to deposit their luggage for checks. Some of the stuff was held back and some the immigrants lost them in transit.

It is interesting how a country in need of labour accepts or rejects immigrants. First the people were checked for common diseases. Around the beginning of the 20th century mostly this was stuff like influenza, polio, eye infections etc. According to the museum statistics the doctors had about 10 seconds to examine a person!

On the first floor of the building there were a series of rooms where people were brought in for examination. Here each immigrant had to show valid papers to prove that they had a job in Amrika. How they got hold of such papers while living in remote areas in their native countries before courier service and internet, I have no clue. Finally, all of them had to have 25 dollars with them which was equal to one week’s salary. There were other tests done to prove their skills and intelligence. In one case they were asked to draw a perfect diamonds !

Also most of them when they landed, they did not know a word of English. The sick or infected were put on quarantine for several days. Since first and second class passengers were examined on the ships itself, it is the poor who had to stay longer on Ellis Island. Many of them lost their valuables or were separated from their family leaving them traumatized.

As one such immigrant interviewed many years later put it :

“ By the time we came to New York… somehow the experience on Ellis island had aged us. We didn’t want to sing anymore. We were all grown up.”

The next time you pass through New York take the ferry to Ellis Island. This is the story how immigrants poor and unskilled all over the world suffer even today.


Abhishek said...

Hey that was good information. Some of my friends in US too visited the place but no body got these details!

ifnotme said...