ELLIS ISLAND, its main building expensively refurbished as a museum of immigration, was reopened to the public with ceremony and celebration over the weekend. Most people commenting on the occasion have been trying to take a properly balanced view of its significance in order to avoid perpetuating the romanticized vision presented in Emma Lazarus's famous words ("Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . . .") of a generous nation opening its arms to the "wretched refuse" of the Earth.
Thus we are reminded by scholars that the tired, the sick -- in fact, all who didn't look as if they would be of much use in the building of this country -- were not particularly welcome and that some were even turned back at Ellis Island, a place that must have caused mixed feelings in immigrants as they disembarked from the ferryboats that had brought them from the docks. Among the graffiti uncovered by restorers of the island's Main Building, it is noted, is one by an Italian arrival that reads, "Damned is the day I left my homeland."
It's probably good to be reminded of these truths, but they shouldn't cast too much of a shadow over the occasion. It is estimated that some 40 percent of America's families can trace their origins in America to Ellis Island and the waves of immigration that passed over it between 1892 and 1924. In coming years, as these families visit the museum they will be seeking not just to retrace the steps of their ancestors but also to stand there in those huge, intimidating rooms and attempt to recreate within themselves the sense of hope that brought them to this country.
That is the part of the myth that isn't myth -- the real and abiding hope that brought the immigrants to Ellis Island and continues to bring them into so many other ports today. Ellis Island will be a museum whose primary subject is still too much alive to be put in a display case -- one devoted as much to the country's future as to its past.