American Scene: From Ellis Island to Lax

From Ellis Island to Lax

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A mechanical engineer, Park had been a successful businessman in Seoul. But life there, he felt, was a "dead end. Too much red tape. Too much trouble. As a man I wanted to do something more." He had made several business trips to the U.S. in the past eight years, and he felt that he could expand and prosper greatly there. He applied for an immigrant visa, and it took him seven months to be cleared.

Upon arrival last year, Park moved into the Western Inn, a hotel run by Koreans in Los Angeles' Koreatown. Soon he noticed that there was no billiard parlor anywhere nearby. Billiards is very popular in Seoul, Park knew, though he himself did not play. So Park opened a billiard hall, which is at present the hot gathering spot for Korean students at USC and UCLA. Last January he got his coveted green card and sent for his family. Four months and three days later they arrived. His net income from his business is now $5,000 to $6,000 a month.

Then as now, money helped a lot. For the fortunate few who could afford first- or second-class cabins on the old steamships, a polite interview in the ship's parlor often satisfied American formalities. But for 17 million im- migrants (and some 250,000 rejectees), the baggage room at Ellis Island was the first stop, then a long flight of slate stairs up to the Great Hall, 170 ft. long, 102 ft. wide, the ceiling 58 ft. above, and everywhere white ; tile and thick plaster made of lime and cattle hair. At the top of the stairs were doctors who watched the immigrants' ascent for lameness, deformity, signs of respiratory problems. Then they were made to walk in circles. "Whenever a case aroused suspicion," one inspector wrote, "the alien was set aside in a cage apart from the rest . . . and his coat lapel or shirt marked with colored chalk, the color indicating why he had been isolated." They would mark them "H" for heart disease, "X" for dementia or perhaps just for looking stupid, "E" for eye problems. The immigrants were entitled to an interpreter. "Name? Where were you born? Have you ever been to the United States before? Do you have any relatives here? Where do they live? Who paid for your passage? Do you have any money? Let me see it. Do you have any skills? Do you have a job waiting for you here? Are you an anarchist? Are you a polygamist?"

Today U.S. consulates abroad are responsible for the medical and legal eligibility of immigrants. They arrive with the necessary papers and X rays; clearance customarily takes but minutes. After Yeon Hee Park and her sons went through the line in Los Angeles, she and the two boys collected their five bulging imitation-leather bags and cleared Customs.

In Wung knelt and caressed the little boys' faces. "Appa!" both cried again and again, teaching all within earshot the Korean word for daddy. In the car, the older boy, Sung Joon, was impressed by the width of the freeway. Traffic congestion he knew from Seoul, but so many lanes! The younger boy asked for a banana. He wanted to see if they tasted better here. Yeon Hee said there were no surprises; it was all as her husband had described it. They had talked so many times on the telephone.

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