How Ellis Island Survived Hurricane Sandy

The People of America Center at Ellis Island finally opens to the public after storm-related delays, and tells the rich and vexed story of America’s immigrants.

Rich Goldstein/The Daily Beast

In a large room with X-ray machines and metal detectors, people queue up for the boats that will take them to Ellis Island.

A photographer manages to snap a few pictures before a U.S. Parks Department Security supervisor arrives on the scene and tells him, “No photography in the security area.” They briefly argue, with the Statue of Liberty framed by the windows behind them.

The exchange spoke volumes about the immigrant experience in America’s history, present, and the conceivable future.

From February to September, millions of tourists traverse the upper New York Bay on trips to Liberty and Ellis Islands, the two most widely recognized symbols of early-20th-century American immigration.

But North America is a colonized continent, and the story of people indigenous to its shores, enslaved to lay its foundation, or brought here by the disruptive forces of 20th-century warfare, were often overlooked in the old Ellis Island Museum, which focused on the immigration processing facility that operated from 1892 to 1954.

The transition to the new Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration seeks to address those overlooked stories, with fresh exhibits by ESI Design that broaden the American immigration narrative and open to the public on May 20.

The display’s opening is timely: The immigrant experience remains troubled today. While some white Americans may balk at the prospect of changing national demographics, they never tire of exploiting undocumented labor for cheap vegetables or nice nails, the latter brutally exposed by The New York Times this week.

The new exhibit, “The Journey: New Eras of Immigration,” doesn’t sugarcoat the past. In addition to stories of immigrant hardship, the displays tell the story of xenophobic, nativist Americans who fought to prevent arrivals.

As he entered the new wing, Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation CEO Stephen Briganti reminded reporters that the immigration processing at Ellis Island began the same year the U.S. Congress voted to extend the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred all Chinese immigration until 1943.

It was a long road for the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. Initial plans were delayed for two years by damage from Hurricane Sandy’s floodwaters. Even on a blue-sky day, the waves reach only three or four feet below the pier.

Thomas Tolentino, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation chief information officer, visited Liberty and Ellis Islands two days after the storms hit to assess the damage, pictures of which he kept on his cellphone. Some show bricks torn out of the islands’ walkways. One features a cash register that either washed up on shore, or washed out of one of the flooded buildings.

According to the New York Post, the island sustained $77 million worth of damage.

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“It was a mess,” Tolentino told The Daily Beast. “There was mud on top of the [computer] servers. All the windows were broken. Debris collected in the narrowest corners. But the water receded within 24 hours.”

Diane Toland, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation’s director of projects, described how two men who remained on the island throughout the storm. They had to climb to the second floor once the water started pouring in.

All electrical equipment had to be moved out of the basement and above the floodline. The task was further complicated by Ellis Island’s status as a historic landmark, where any changes to the building must preserve that history.

“We built out the walls, and hid the electrical components behind the exhibits,” Toland said.

“The cabling is weatherproofed, so that is below the floodline, but the connections are all above the waterline of a 100-year storm,” Tolentino added.

The new exhibits rely heavily on technology. Peppered around the new section are kiosks with HD video displays. On every kiosk are four buttons, each of which triggers an audio-visual presentation of an American immigrant’s personal story.

Pressing one of the buttons calls up video of a Pakistani taxi driver. He talks about the white people that used to live all over Queens—the Irish, German, and Italian immigrants that are synonymous with popular representations of Ellis Island and America’s immigrant past.

His words are broadcast over black-and-white images of that bygone epoch. Then his story comes back to the modern day and he describes the people he sees in Queens now, especially other South Asian transplants. Almost a quarter of America’s Pakistani immigrants live in the New York/New Jersey area.

Another large feature in the exhibit is an interactive display that allows visitors to enter their personal or family immigration status and have it animated on a digital map. The input uses a touchscreen keyboard to access a public database of locations both past and present.

“We needed a way to access information about places that might not exist anymore,” said Michael Schneider, senior designer of tech & media for ESI Design. “And it works at the national or local level.”

To demonstrate, he typed in Burma, Seoul, and Walla Walla, Washington. On the screen, a color-coded line, unique to his input device, traced the path from place to place to place. “The terminals are connected to Windows computers and run a custom animation program. It records the input of the last 100 users like a digital signboard.”

The new exhibits are housed in the structures that used to be Ellis Island’s laundry and kitchen facilities. For uncomplicated migrants, the stopover lasted but a few hours, but there were a host of reasons that might delay that departure for newly arrived people and leave hundreds of people stuck for days at a time.

During the height of the island’s use as an immigration processing center, thousands of families had to remain there at a given time because of lack of funds, quarantine, or straight-up American racism.

At the discretion of its inspectors, any newly arrived migrants could be denied entry to the U.S. if they were “liable to become a public charge.”

It is telling that modern Libertarians are enamored of Teddy Roosevelt, who said in his 1904 State of the Union address: “[W]e should have [no immigration] at all of the wrong kind. The need is to devise some system by which undesirable immigrants shall be kept out entirely… [W]here the population is already congested, immigrants come in such numbers as to depress the conditions of life for those already there.”

It is true that American immigrants often live in depressed conditions, but ones that are more likely to arise from the American opposition to new arrivals than any defect in the inhabitants’ character. The new exhibit at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration celebrates those immigrants and finally lets a new generation tell their own story and in their own words.