Among my father's possessions when he died last summer was a group portrait of his family. Solemnly foreign, they stare out from the photograph: the parents, Jakov and Taube; the six children, three of them born in Russia, my father and the others in New York soon after.

The family had arrived at Ellis Island in 1901, travelling on board the SS Patricia from some port - Odessa, Gdansk, Hamburg, Bremen? I don't know. Only the name of the ship is noted on the scrap of paper I have, a notice from the Department of Immigration confirming that when my Uncle Lou was seven years old when he arrived in New York.

There isn't any other record, as far as I know. My grandparents died long before I was born. My father was almost 90 when he died last summer and this was one of the questions I never asked.

Almost the last thing my father did before he died was visit the new museum at Ellis Island. I didn't go with him. There was probably something that seemed more interesting that weekend. Maybe I was too embarrassed to be with him while he confronted ghosts.

Last year Ellis Island was reopened as a museum. It has been wonderfully restored, especially the vast tiled Registry Room with its domed roof where, like millions of other immigrants, my grandparents were processed and became instant Americans. The exhibits of artefacts and photographs, films and recordings - even the computer banks where family histories are stored - have been painstakingly pieced together from a million scraps of history. But the sum is much more than its pieces. The idea of it all is overwhelming.

Between 1880 and 1924, 25 million immigrants came to America. Most of them passed through Ellis Island. It was the biggest migration in human history. It changed what the country was to become and how it thought about itself; these were the ingredients for the melting pot, both its reality and the symbol politicians would brag about. A hundred million of us have ancestors who got off the boat at Ellis Island. It makes this flyspeck of land dredged up out of New York's harbour the most resonant monument in America.

On a hot morning, I board the ferry Miss Ellis Island at Battery Park at the toe of Manhattan.

On shore, entertaining the passengers, a gorgeously muscled West Indian from St Kitts walks on his hands, vendors hawk hot dogs and a couple of kids pose for pictures wearing green foam rubber head-dresses in the shape

of the crown on the Statue of


It is only a short trip across the crowded harbour. In the summer the water is full of boats, not just the dutiful tugs and ponderous ferries plying the commuter route to and from Staten Island, but tall ships preening and pleasure craft spinning white foam. The summer sailors raise their glasses and wave; we wave back. But the ferry passes the Statue of Liberty and pulls up to Ellis Island, and the ghosts are here all right.

he grandparents would have come like this, first to a pier in the Hudson River, at the edge of Manhattan, then on a listing ferry, packed like pickles, to Ellis Island. As she disembarked, if my grandmother looked back over her shoulder, she would have seen the skyline of the magic city. It must have been startling, dislocating, terrifying, thrilling.

'Going to America then was almost like going to the moon,' said one Russian immigrant whose photograph is on the wall at Ellis Island. She arrived in 1907. Her name was Golda Meir.

I wander up the gangway alongside the other healthy toothy- huge Americans those scared foreigners were to produce. It is hard to imagine what it was like for the grandparents and uncles with their black clothes and bundles, coming from some unimaginable village near Minsk, speaking nothing but Yiddish, entering this massive building with those haughty eagles carved along the facade.

Ellis Island opened as an immigration station in 1892, but the ramshackle barracks burnt down and in 1897 the new building went up. It is a building that must have seemed full of high Victorian confidence, announcing itself as the gateway to this promised land.

In the baggage hall are displayed some of the sacks, packs, bundles and crates the immigrants brought with them. Some are rustic baskets, others tattered pieces of fabric tied with string. There are sturdy tin trunks neatly labelled with the name of the home port: Bremen or Hamburg. In another room, graphs and word trees show the progress of immigration in America - from 1600, 60 million arrived, speaking dozens of languages and dialects.

Hunched over the computer keyboards looking for lost ancestors, is a row of intense temporary hackers, punching their way into their own histories. For the descendants of the immigrants who, like me, have only a tiny scrap of paper or a photograph, the museum provides a communal history.

Upstairs is the Registry Room, its windows looking out to the harbour, the skyline and the Statue of Liberty. Once it held long benches where 5,000 immigrants were processed every day. Here they waited: Italians, Jews, West Indians, Lapps, Cossacks, Romanians, Syrians. Waiting for officials from this foreign country to let them enter or, God forbid, send them back. Two per cent of the immigrants were returned; one in five was detained.

Depending on the administration - there were cycles of corruption and reform at Ellis Island - the immigrants were often preyed on by crooks and con artists. Often they were abused and ridiculed by officials who were brutal, ignorant or indifferent.

In the chaos the immigrants lost their identities and, as often as not, even their names. 'Adam,' an official would hear a woman address her husband - and the family name became Adams. In Francis Coppola's Godfather II, the best evocation of the immigrant experience on film, an inspector shouts at a little boy: 'Name?' The kid does not understand. Looking at a tag on the boy, the official notes the child's home town and writes it down instead. The boy becomes Vito Corleone.

Back in Europe these migrants might have waited months to get a passport - 'people were literally dying in line,' said one immigrant of a queue outside the American consulate in Warsaw. Then there were the trains - 'they carried you . . . like you would carry a bunch of pigs,' said a Lithuanian of a trip to Gdansk. Then there was the passage.

Some of the ships were rotten hulks and took two weeks to make the crossing. Other immigrants travelled on great liners, such as the Mauretania , crammed into the bowels of the ship while a few floors up another species lived in first-class splendour. On a wall in an obscure corner there is a little plaque in remembrance of the immigrants who died on the Titanic.

Here are passports and identity papers, often authorised by some monarch - the hand of Victor Emmanuel or Victoria Regina - and posters from the shipping lines advertising fares in steerage. Immigration was big business; all the shippers cared for was volume. Bodies were a cash crop.

When the ships docked on the Manhattan side of the Hudson River, the first- and second-class passengers disembarked directly into the city; some of the immigrants, politicised by poverty, oppression and class in Europe, noted cynically that in the land of equal opportunity, not all things were equal.

Of all the processing which took place at Ellis Island, the most awful was the medical examination. If you failed, you could be detained or deported - and the authorities at Ellis Island required shippers to return unfit immigrants at their own expense, as airlines have to today. If you were ill, an official would mark your lapel with a piece of blue chalk; the worst mark of all was Ct for trachoma, an eye disease common in southern Europe. Of his journey to America, Sholom Aleichem wrote:

'At Antwerp, waiting for the ship to take us to America, we meet Goldele, a girl with bad eyes. People tell her family to go to the doctor. So they go to the doctor. The doctor examines them and finds they are all hale and hearty and can go to America, but she, Goldele, cannot go because she has trachomas on her eyes. At first her family do not understand. Only later do they realise what it means. It means that they can all go to America but she, Goldele, will have to remain behind in Antwerp. So there begins a wailing, a weeping, a moaning. Three times her mama faints. Her papa wants to stay with her but he can't. All the ship tickets would be lost. So they have to go off to America and leave her, Goldele, here until the trachomas will go away from her eyes.' Along with the sick, the 'lunatic' were not welcome and neither was the 'polygamist'.

For the medical examination, the men and women were separated. Those detained for further examination were put into quarantine. At Ellis Island the 'Staircase of Separation' had three aisles - for those who passed muster, those who needed railroad tickets, and the detainees with their chalk marks. Alongside the nightmare of possible deportation, this separation must have been resonant with horror. In Russia, separation could mean the men had been taken for involuntary military service; in Armenia, it could mean the men had been taken to be executed.

There is a photograph at Ellis Island of three Armenians, executed by Ottoman Turks, hanging in a public square. There are pictures of the bodies of dead Jews strewn across some pillaged village in Russia during one of the pogroms that lasted for 40 years after the assassination of the liberal Tsar Alexander II in 1881. One-third of all Eastern European Jews fled; 90 per cent came to the United States.

Some came barefoot in rags, some in wild native dress. Most, though, had somehow acquired at least one decent outfit - a suit for the sabbath, a frock for church. By the early 1900s, fashion was already international. In the remarkable photographs at Ellis Island, Italian peasants wear prim Victorian bonnets and bearded Jews sport Edwardian frock coats.

'Gott] my father used those]' cries a woman, her voice shaky as she stares at a pair of cupping glasses used to draw out infection. Alongside are the other items the immigrants carried, icons now: handmade tweezers from Syria, embroidered linens for a trousseau from Italy. In 1909, Yetta Fiscus Voichek carried from Russia a pot to make gefilte fish in. On its own in a glass case is a coconut from Guyana which was kept to 'remind the immigrant of home'.

Above the Registry Room, along a mezzanine, is a warren of rooms where immigrants slept, pleaded their cases or ate. Many were suspicious and would not eat, because nobody gave you food; this they could not understand. In one room immigrants were greeted by fellow Poles or Jews or Italians who had already arrived and formed societies to help their own people. Here is what was known as the 'kissing post', where immigrants were greeted by their relatives, or where those detained were released. One legend reads: 'The Jew of all countries kisses his wife and his children as though he has all the kisses in the world and intended to use them all up quick.'

And then it would be over. 'Free to go,' some official would say. 'Free to go.' But it wasn't all streets of gold. Although America was undergoing an urban revolution and needed workers, earlier immigrants, mostly from northern Europe, protested.

In 1882, after race riots in San Francisco, Congress barred any more Chinese from entering the country. By the turn of the century, and again after the First World War, although the open-door policy lasted until the Twenties, there was virulent anti-immigrant feeling.

On board the Miss Ellis Island, sailing back to the city, is a West Indian family eating ice-cream; a pretty Colombian stares dreamily at a yacht, a score of Koreans, strung with cameras, peer into their lenses; the sun flashes off a gold and diamond ring worn by a Russian in stonewashed jeans.

In the past couple of decades, New York has become an immigrant city again. Millions of new immigrants have arrived, this time from Asia and Central America and, again, from Russia. The influx has produced Hindu temples in Queens, Russian hoods in Brooklyn and Korean groceries on every corner. And not just in New York: across the country it has produced tribal tensions everywhere - at universities, in ghettos. The new arrivals are often seen as somehow 'un-American', unwilling to plunge into the melting pot, unable to fit in.

The biggest difference is that today's immigrants have not travelled for weeks in a ship to arrive at Ellis Island. They have come overnight by air to New York or L A or Miami. With a huge Hispanic influx, these places are becoming bilingual. Where once Puerto Ricans - native-born Americans, of course - were the dominant Hispanic population in New York, now it is the Dominicans. There are 800,000 in the city and they are a substantial cultural and political force: 25 per cent of New York is Hispanic.

My taxi driver the day I visit Ellis Island is a Dominican. He likes the city for what it provides economically, he says, but he takes his family home every year and does not necessarily want his little girl raised on American values. Not like my grandparents - when they came to America, all the connections were broken.

The ferry stops at Liberty Island to take on more passengers. That my grandparents sailed right past is an iconic idea, as if from a movie. Maybe the statue, almost new then, was still coppery and did not yet have its green patina. Anyhow, it must have seemed a bizarre national monument. This was no statue of a tsar or king, it was a statue of an idea, towering 22 storeys over the harbour.

The Ellis Island museum is open from 9.30am to 5pm daily. Ferries leave approximately every half-hour from Battery Park, Manhattan, from 9.15am until 3.30pm. They also stop at the Statue of Liberty.

(Photograph omitted)