Located in the Upper New York Bay, Ellis Island served as the immigration gateway for an estimated 12 million foreign nationals from 1892 to 1954. Once the immigration center closed in 1954, Ellis Island became a popular tourist attraction for Americans who wish to visit the island and trace their heritage to their families’ beginnings in the United States. To facilitate tourists’ ability to look up their ancestry, Ellis Island maintains copious records and the Ellis Island National Immigration Museum. Next month, the museum will open two new galleries, the contents of which will pick up the island’s story from its closure as a port in 1954 and bring it into the present.
The New Museum Galleries
The main purpose of the new exhibits is to celebrate the country’s rich history of welcoming foreign nationals and encouraging their naturalization. However, the galleries will also serve to highlight a number of criticisms of the advent of the nation’s more restrictive immigration policies. For example, an exhibit entitled “Feet People” will explain to visitors that up until approximately 50 years ago, Mexican workers were able to routinely and easily cross the border into the United States in order to work in the agricultural and construction industries. However, a half century ago the United States implemented quotas and caps limiting the number of foreign workers who could fill these positions.
Additionally, another exhibit called “Border Patrol” will explain to viewers that in 1993 the federal government began militarizing the United States-Mexico border (a border that stretches more than 2,000 miles) and deporting unauthorized foreign nationals who entered or attempted to enter the country without inspection. The exhibit takes the position that the border fortifications have forced men, women, and children to cross dangerous terrain, including deserts, contaminated water sources, and mountain ranges, in order to come to the United States for employment or to reunite with their families.
Another notable element of the new galleries is that kiosks have been placed throughout the exhibits that feature videos of immigrants telling the stories of their and their families’ journey to the United States. For example, one video features an interview with Mr. Jean-Pierre Kamwa, a Cameroon national, who fled from his home country to the United States due to his fear that his government would attempt to kill him. Mr. Kamwa applied for asylum in 1999. According to Mr. Kamwa, his application was eventually granted, although not until after he was confined to a detention center for five months.
Other Galleries in the Museum
The museum also hosts galleries and exhibits which chronicle American immigration before Ellis Island became the hub for incoming foreign nationals. Specifically, these galleries highlight that more than half of the foreign nationals who came to the U.S. during the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries came as slaves from various African and Caribbean countries.
The face of immigrants is the face of the United States. While the issue of comprehensive immigration reform in areas like DACA has divided the country recently, the Ellis Island National Immigration Museum serves as an excellent reminder that the nation was founded by immigrants and continues to grow and thrive because of immigrants’ contributions.
Additional Blog Posts
What Immigrants Need to Know About the Government Shutdown, ImmigRantings, October 10, 2013
Problems with the H-1B visa: From Work Horse to Show Pony, ImmigRantings, February 13, 2012