By David Cruz
There was a solemn hush as Staff carefully replaced sets of children’s shoes into an exhibit at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum this morning. These were just a few of the thousands of artifacts that were returned to the museum from a storage facility in Maryland, where they were taken after Superstorm Sandy submerged the island and destroyed the electrical, heating and cooling systems. The artifacts were spared but their absence left a void in the museum.
“I think that we maintain a respect for the artifacts. This was a place of great anxiety. It was a place of great joy for 98 percent of the people who came through, but it was also a very frightening experience,” said Judy Giuriceo, Curator of Exhibits for Ellis and Liberty Islands. “I think that we understand that there’s a certain respect for the people and for the objects, and then also, as curators, we need to make sure that these items are preserved for the next generation and generations after.”
The inspector who used one of the recently returned desks saw 5,000 immigrants a day, his decisions could mean literally life or death for someone coming to the U.S.
“The general disposition was that either you were immediately admitted by the inspector and you received just a check mark by your name, you were discharged and you were free to go, or he was gonna hold you temporarily, and he would make an ‘x’ by your name,” explained Historian Barry Moreno. “The immigration laws gradually changed. They became firmer, more rigid, stricter and new procedures, for instance, the need for using a passport to enter the U.S., that was begun in the days of Ellis Island. The need of a visa to enter the United States was begun in this period. Prior to 1920, you didn’t need either to enter the United States, which is amazing.”
The results of the $53 million spent on the recovery of this site are mostly invisible to the thousands who visit every day. But here, where the returned artifacts are being stored, staff catalog the items and check their condition, preparing them to be returned to their rightful spot.
“It’s been three years and there’s things that we love a lot,” said Brent Talbott. “You know, this is what we do, preserving these for the American public and now we get an opportunity to put them back to the public so they can enjoy them again, so it is like Christmas.”
With the debate on immigration so wrapped up in partisan politics, it can be easy to forget why it is that so many risk so much to get here. A walk through these exhibits is a must for anyone in need of perspective.