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will be Paul Verkuil, a law professor at New York's Columbia University, whom both sides will present with sheaves of historical documents, including records of the original 400-year-old land grants extended by King Charles II.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?"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SAGE Bookkeeper & PA to Directors

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map