In contrast, at least 17 million legal immigrants passed through this country's main East Coast processing center, on an island between Manhattan and New Jersey, between 1892 and 1943. In some ways, the five hours most of them spent going through official channels was more frightening and disheartening than today's furtive desert trek.
They'd played by the rules and made what was often an unpleasant ocean voyage that cost them most of their savings. Yet now here they were in a huge, crowded building, facing clerks who didn't thoroughly understand them, officials who demanded that they prove they had sponsoring relatives in this country, and doctors who could send them back to the hardship of their home nations at the first sign of disease or mental inadequacy.
The future of millions of people was decided in an atmosphere that combined the worst aspects of the post office at Christmas time and the waiting room of an HMO's urgent care facility. Emigration to America was these people's last, best hope for freedom and prosperity. The year was 1922. The name of the place: Ellis Island.
That's the setting for Coming Through: Ellis Island Revisited! It's a play adapted by Wynn Handman of New York City's American Place Theatre, based on the recollections of immigrants who came through that processing center in the 1920s. The three-character work is set for a very short run January 4-7 at the Invisible Theatre, followed by a tour to local middle schools and high schools.
"The place is jammed and it stinks," director Amy Almquist says of Ellis Island, not the schools. "Imagine all the clutter and clatter and smells, and the true sense of fear these immigrants had, not knowing if they were going to pass these exams, and not even knowing what the criteria for the exams were.
"A lot of this show is about these people's anticipation of something so much better than what they had left behind, and their fear of the unknown, and how they made it through. We know that a lot of immigrants' hopes were quashed, but the idea here is that after all they go through, they still hold onto their determination."
So Coming Through is not a chamber of horrors; the three characters do, indeed, come through Ellis Island, but their experiences are widely divergent.
Brendan Murphy plays Salvatore Crosetti, a young man from a small town near Naples. Families in his village are sending their members to America one by one, so Salvatore has something of a reunion to look forward to. "He's just had 23 days of horrendous experiences in steerage," says Murphy, "but he tries to concentrate on what's in his future; he's determined to get through."
At Ellis Island, Salvatore meets one Mary Cox. Played by Carrie Hill, Mary is an Irish woman tired of working on the family farm, looking for adventure in America. Salvatore is astonished to hear of Mary's delightful crossing, fraternizing with the ship's crew above decks.
Salvatore and Mary also cross paths with Manny Steen (played by Steven P. Elton), whose Jewish family escaped pogroms in Turkey and Poland only to wind up in Ireland by mistake. Now Manny is on the final leg of a journey that had been interrupted some years before.
"He's got an attitude about everything," says Almquist. "He's a true reflection of the aggravation and frustration involved in making it through Ellis Island."
To prepare for their roles, the actors pored over books about Ellis Island and spent a great deal of time grappling with dialect tapes. But although the play was derived from an oral history project, they didn't try to listen to the actual voices of the people they were playing.
"We've been trying to get to the spirit of the experience rather than do impersonations," says director Almquist.
"But I'd love to hear those tapes after the fact," says Murphy.
Murphy's research also included conversations with his wife's grandmother and great-uncle, getting stories about their Italian parents, who had passed through Ellis Island.
He'll be doing the same sort of thing after each performance, when the actors engage the audience in a discussion of family and lineage.
After immigration reception was moved into New York City in 1943, Ellis Island remained open as a detention station for aliens and deportees until 1954. In 1990 the main building reopened as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
"Of course, everybody in New York knows what it is, but out here, I've heard people say, 'Ellis Island? What's that?'" says Almquist. "But the stories of the Ellis Island immigrants have a lot in common with the stories of illegal immigrants here in the Southwest. I'd imagine that illegal immigrants coming across the border now have the same drive, the same dreams, the same belief that they'll have a better life here. But although now, at this distance, we look on Ellis Island with great warmth and heart, we have very negative reactions to today's illegal immigrants. We see the economic impact rather than the people themselves.
"So this play can be a catalyst for discussion of all that. But it's not some serious classroom lecture. It evokes thought, it evokes feeling, and it entertains."