American Scene: From Ellis Island to Lax

From Ellis Island to Lax

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It is said that nearly half of all living Americans can track their ancestry through the imposing Great Hall on Ellis Island, once the nation's largest immigration station. No wonder, then, that a drive to make a national museum of the cracked, peeling facility, along with its famous next-door neighbor, the Statue of Liberty, has not gone wanting for funds. Ellis Island, Statue of Liberty -- their very names seem to pop latches off pocketbooks.

Look around. If not Ellis Island, what is a nation of immigrants, to say nothing of sentimentalists, left with to enshrine? A Customs desk at Kennedy? A baggage carrousel at Miami? Immigration today, although it may take 18 months or more, is for the eminently acceptable, by and large a sterile affair, cut and dried -- for some, almost a snap. In the busiest of Ellis Island's days, immigration was a deeply traumatic ordeal, the stuff of family history that descendants keep alive.

"On board the ship we became utterly dejected," one immigrant wrote of his voyage early this century. "Seasickness broke out among us. Hundreds of people had vomiting fits . . . As all were crossing the ocean for the first time, they thought their end had come. The confusion of cries became unbearable . . . I wanted to escape from that inferno but no sooner had I thrust my head forward from the lower bunk than someone above me vomited straight upon my head. I wiped the vomit away, dragged myself onto the deck, leaned against the railing and vomited my share into the sea, and lay down half-dead upon the deck."

The flight from Seoul to Los Angeles, (where, according to an Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman, a second Statue of Liberty ought to be erected), took 13 1/2 hours, two movies, three meals and a snack. Yeon Hee Park, 33, and her two sons, Sung Joon, 8, and Yong Joon, 7, passed the hours pleasantly. No one became ill.

"The day of the emigrants' arrival in New York was the nearest earthly likeness to the final Day of Judgment, when we have to prove our fitness to enter Heaven," wrote Globetrotter Stephen Graham. (His report of a 1913 journey is one of scores dug up by Irving Howe for his fine book World of Our Fathers, to which this account is indebted.) Another observer recorded the anxiety that rent the hordes in steerage as they were taken off the steamships, loaded into lighters, taken to the quay: " 'There is Ellis Island!' shouted an immigrant who had already been in the United States and knew of its alien laws. The name acted like magic. Faces grew taut, eyes narrowed. There, in those red buildings, fate awaited them. Were they ready to enter? Or were they to be sent back? 'Only God knows,' shouted an elderly man, his withered hand gripping the railing."

After the Korean Air jumbo jet landed at LAX, as the locals like to call their airport, the first instructions over the public address system were given in Korean. "If you have any questions, please ask us. Regardless of your destination, you have to declare baggage and clear customs here. Thank you." Yeon Hee Park and her boys were shown to the proper desk. "I am a little uncomfortable," she said through an interpreter. "Not afraid. I know my husband is here. He will take care of us." Her husband In Wung Park, 37, was nearing the airport about then in the new white four-door Buick Century he had purchased just one week before.

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