Isle of Tears

September 13, 1990

Whoever decided that what New York needed most for $156 million was another tourist attraction in the harbor has gotten his way. Relax. It wasn't government money, but freely donated by the multitudes and some corporations. It is Ellis Island, where from 1892 to 1954 some 12 million frightened and confused immigrants passed their medical exams and paperwork hassles before being let loose in America, and where some 240,000 were rejected, confined and turned back.

For most of the larger group, Ellis Island is a dimly remembered way station on a mostly glorious entrance to New York Harbor past the Statue of Liberty. For the smaller, it was the "isle of tears." The original complex burned down but the replacement completed in 1900 with its Great Hall and copper roofs would make anyone's landmark list. The $156 million is mostly for restoring this noble pile that was let rot from 1954 onward.

It has been estimated that 140 million living Americans either passed through these halls and up the staircase under the watchful eyes of physicians, which for most was the only medical exam, or are descended from those who did. Reason enough to renovate these halls for a museum of immigration, previous ideas for a college, jail or hospital having fallen through. It was a good idea, and the nation should be grateful to volunteers led by Lee Iacocca for raising the money and seeing the project through.

It would be wrong, however, to call this new museum the immigrants' monument. This whole country and all its stands for is their monument. What they did on Ellis Island was queue up and pass through, most in four or five hours. What they did afterward was the wonder of the world.

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