Originally Published in The New York Times.
By Azi Paybarah
Jan. 16, 2019
It’s a wall. It’s made of steel. It was built because immigrants kept coming.
But it’s not the wall you’re thinking of.
We’re talking about the American Immigrant Wall of Honor at Ellis Island: 770 stainless steel panels engraved with the names of about 775,000 immigrants.
Each name on the wall was paid for by one of those immigrants’ family or friends.
“They want to honor the people who came before them at the site of that person’s first steps in America,” said Stephen A. Briganti, president of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation Inc.
The monument serves as both tribute to immigrants and fund-raiser for the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration and the Statue of Liberty. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan wanted to preserve the site, but without spending taxpayer money. The solution: build a wall and charge people to add names to it. It opened in 1990.
It costs $150 to put one name on the wall and $225 for two names, with more expensive options as well (because this is, still, New York City). So far, the wall has raised more than $80 million.
The wall is filling up — the number of inscriptions rose sharply in 2017 and again last year. There are only five empty panels left, enough for about 3,300 names.
The kinds of names placed on the wall have shifted. At first, they were mostly immigrants who had passed through Ellis Island, “primarily Eurocentric,” Mr. Briganti said.
More recently, there has been an uptick in names from Latin America, Africa and Asia. Also, the museum expanded its focus to include “those who endured forced migration from slavery,” and the “earliest settlers, the American Indian,” the foundation’s website says.
Despite the federal shutdown, you can still visit the wall, along with the rest of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. New York State and private donors have been keeping them open. As of Tuesday, National Park Service’s recreation fees, along with private donors, are keeping them open.