For New Immigrants To The U.S., Ellis Island Still Means A Lot
It's been more than 60 years since Ellis Island closed as a station for inspecting and detaining immigrants. But you can still take a ferry from New York City and cross the Hudson River along the old routes, right to the dock outside a red brick building trimmed with limestone.
"You're sailing in just the way a 1920s immigrant sailed in, only on a little better vessel," says Stephen Briganti, the son of an Ellis Island immigrant from Italy.
He leads the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, which worked with the National Park Service to restore the island's main building that processed 12 million immigrants around the early 20th century. After it was closed by federal government in 1954, the building was reopened as a museum in 1990. It was recently renamed the Ellis Island National Immigration Museum to tell immigrant stories beyond the Ellis Island years.
"If we didn't talk about the people who have come since Ellis Island, we wouldn't be relevant to new Americans," Briganti says. "So our board and the Park Service decided, 'Well, we better fix that!' "
Their remedy is a new exhibition opening Wednesday about more recent immigrants that didn't arrive in the U.S. through the island. As you enter the galleries, you hear the translated testimony of immigrants who came over the past half-century. These rooms were once part of the kitchen and laundry building. Now, they look like a high-tech airport terminal with video kiosks where you can meet immigrants like Trinh Doan.
"I came as a refugee from Vietnam to the U.S. in 1980," she explains in a video. "We were in the refugee camp in Hong Kong for about two years. And then, we were given a one-way airplane ticket to Green Bay, Wisconsin!"
Briganti says people are the focus of this new exhibition.
"There's no great art here," he says. "There really aren't any artifacts in this section. Because this is today."
Immigration today looks a lot different than it did at the turn of the century, according to Columbia University historian Mae Ngai, because of one main reason — the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
"That's the biggest reason why we have a much more diverse and multicultural society since the late 20th century," says Ngai, who served on an advisory committee for the museum's new exhibition.
The 1965 law got rid of immigration quotas that favored northern and western Europeans. Instead, it created a system that gives each country the same number of visas to the U.S. every year. These new quota restrictions helped lead to millions of unauthorized immigrants, mainly from Mexico and Central America. Ngai says they ultimately made illegal immigration a widespread issue in the U.S.
"Illegal immigration wasn't a problem at the turn of the 20th century," she says. "Ninety-nine percent of the people who showed up at Ellis Island got in. One to 2 percent were excluded. That's all."
It was a different legal system than the one facing more recent immigrants like Lesley Lopez of Lexington, Ky. She stopped by the Ellis Island museum with her husband to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
"We have been living here for almost 14 years, and I love the country," Lopez says. "My kids are Americans, and sometimes I tell them, 'Do you want to go back to Mexico?' And they say, 'No.' "
Briganti says he hopes the museum will continue to tell the stories of immigrants like Lopez – although he admits he doesn't know what the next chapter of immigration to the U.S. will look like.
"That's up to people in Washington, and I guess it's really up to the American people," he says. "We'll continue, I hope, to welcome people who will make this a better country."
Ellis Island may no longer play a part in receiving America's newest immigrants. But Briganti says there's plenty of space in the island's boarded-up, brick buildings to tell their stories in future museums.
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