New Jersey tries to seize back the huddled masses

It is a stifling summer afternoon on Ellis Island and the "huddled masses" are swarming off the tourist ferry on to the dock. Brows dripping and video cameras whirring, many are in search of a glimpse of the experience of ancestors whose first steps on American soil were taken here - the immigrants' gateway to the land of opportunity. It is a place for sightseeing and reflection. There are no UN peacekeeping troops here - yet.

For, almost unbelievably, Ellis Island, a small but celebrated speck in the mouth of New York Harbour, has become the subject of a legal dispute: nobody is sure who it belongs to.

Beginning this morning, the United States Supreme Court in Washington will become the venue of a most unusual trial. The litigant is the state of New Jersey, which, in a fit of unneigh-bourly pique, is sueing New York state for jurisdiction of the island.

Expected to last for about a month, the trial will be the first to be heard from its original stages at the Supreme Court since 1790. According to the Constitution, the justices of this court alone must be the arbiters of territorial disputes between states - to avert an outbreak of military hostilities.

The lure of ownership is not hard to comprehend. Almost incidental is the promise of tax re-venue generated by the millions of tourists who visit Ellis Island every year and cram the museum, which opened in 1990. More powerful is the site's symbolism. No fewer than 40 per cent of all Americans can trace their ancestry to a man, woman or child who landed here.

Presiding over the case will be Paul Verkuil, a law professor at New York's Columbia University, whom both sides will present with sheaves of historical documents, including records of the original 400-year-old land grants extended by King Charles II. Once the hearings are completed, the burden of making a final decision will go to the Supreme Court's justices, who may not offer a final verdict for months, even years.

"We feel simply that New York has usurped a piece of New Jersey's property, and the old records prove fairly conclusively that this is New Jersey's land," argues Hope Alswang, the director of New Jersey's Historical Commission. On her side is geography: Ellis Island lies just 1,300 feet from the New Jersey shoreline and a full two miles from Manhattan.

The trial will turn on an agreement struck between the two states in 1834, under which New York won control of thebarely three acres that constituted Ellis Island then. Each state, meanwhile, gained ownership of submerged territory on their respective sides of the island. Early in this century, Ellis Island was expanded to cover 24 acres, with landfill extending towards New Jersey. That, say New Jersey's lawyers, made Ellis Island theirs.

But cultural and sentimental considerations tie Ellis Island more closely with New York than New Jersey. The immigrant steamships would first dock at Manhattan, before their human freight sailed in small ferries to the island for processing. A third of the 16 million people who passed through it settled in New York. Visit Ellis Island today and your eye is drawn not towards drab Jersey City, but to the towers of southern Manhattan.

A quick survey of visitors and workers on the island suggests opinion falls heavily in New York's favour. "New Jersey may have geography as its claim, but it's not going to happen," said Jessica Lang, who works for the foundation that restored Ellis Island for tourists in the Eighties. She continues, perhaps less persuasively than she realises: "It's like Scotland claiming independence; everyone knows it's part of Britain".

"It has to be New York," agrees Michael Garrety, who was among hordes of tourists visiting the island as well as the neighbouring Statue of Liberty monument (which is not being contested in the suit). "That's where most of the immigrants passed through."

Like many, however, Mr Garrety admits that at the end of the day, he hardly cares and is puzzled that New Jersey is wasting money on the issue. "I don't think this going to be the beginning of the second Civil War, do you?"

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