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Ellis Island Marks 50th Year Since Closing

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of Ellis Island - the gateway to New York and the portal to the American dream for tens of millions of immigrants during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those great waves of immigration helped to establish America's cultural diversity and fueled the country's economic growth.

Today, many Americans are sentimental about Ellis Island and its historic symbolism. But as VOA's Adam Phillips reports from New York, there is also heartache and controversy in the Island's legacy.

In 2004, the boats arriving every few hours at Ellis Island, about a kilometer west across New York Harbor from Manhattan, carry tourists and the National Park Service personnel who provide upkeep and education at the 13-hectare site.

It's a quiet scene compared to Ellis Island's heyday between 1892 and 1924, during which 12 million immigrants passed through the facility's ornate, red-brick buildings, usually with little more than a satchel tied with rope and their loved ones in tow. Ellis Island historian Barry Moreno says this gateway to America was wide open during those days.

“It's interesting because mass immigration was not controlled really. There was no passport [and] no visa requirement. No papers were needed. You just bought a ticket, jumped on a boat and sailed to America and took your chance to get through Ellis Island. As long as you had no disease, as long as you weren't an anarchist, as long as you weren't impoverished and you were not obviously sick or broken down physically, you could get through Ellis Island.”

The arrival in America was a happy experience for most immigrants. Susetta Gilletta arrived at Ellis Island from Sicily with her mother and sisters in 1928. She recalled for an Ellis Island historian that her father, like many immigrants, had preceded his family to America to find work and housing. Ms. Gilletta remembers seeing her father for the first time in several years, as he waited for his family in Ellis Island's Great Hall:

MG: "We were in this big, big room and they called your name out. And when they called Gilletta..." She weeps.

INTERVIEWER: "It's okay. Take your time."

MG: "My father came running through the turnstile, and he squatted on his knees with his arms outstretched and the five of us ran into his arms and we were kissing and hugging. We were so happy to be together. And he said we're all together now. We'll never be apart again."

During the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the initial flood of immigrants passing through Ellis Island dwindled to a trickle. There were many reasons for this - including a changed domestic economy and a heightened fear of foreigners who might be communists or political undesirables. Airplanes had begun to replace ships as the mode of transport for immigrants. Mr. Moreno explains that by the 1950s, those who did find themselves on Ellis Island usually had a problem of some kind.

“So they were flying in to New York airports, finding out that their papers were wrong, or they were on a bad list, and they were brought to Ellis Island. The men here were accused fascists, accused Nazi collaborators, and also out of Communist China. Chinese people were here, and Koreans from the Korean War period were brought to Ellis Island. And also deportees. A lot of people were arrested in the United States. They had lived here a number of years and were under warrant for deportation because they had committed a crime. Some of them wanted to escape. We had attempts to escape and some successful escapes from Ellis Island. Inevitably, too, some immigrants were sent to Ellis Island by mistake So it kind of had more of a dark feel in those later years.”

Today, fifty years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered it closed as an official port of entry on November 12, 1954, Ellis Island has become one of America's most popular tourist destinations - both for foreigners and for Americans who trace their family's beginnings in the United States to that fabled spot.

And Ellis Island remains a powerful reminder of the difficult challenges America has faced, and still faces, as a free and open society. Then, as now, more people want to come to live in the United States than the country can accommodate. Then, as now, homeland security is a serious concern. American officials continue to seek a proper balance between welcoming the energy, imagination and hopefulness that immigrants bring, and keeping America safe from those who might wish to harm her.