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Battle Over Ellis Island New York, New Jersey Lay Claim To Landmark

Mon., Jan. 12, 1998

The heart of the issue, really, is only bragging rights.

But the long and sometimes bitter battle over Ellis Island enters its final round Monday when lawyers from New York and New Jersey go before the Supreme Court to lay claim to the landmark.

“We’re not at war with New York, but we do have a strong disagreement,” New Jersey Attorney General Peter Verniero said.

“This case is not unlike two neighbors arguing over a boundary,” he said, “the difference being the neighbors are sovereign states and the dispute’s been over 160 years in the making.”

The U.S. government has weighed in on New Jersey’s side. Some historians and preservationists have added their 2 cents worth that the island - where legions of turn-of-the-century immigrants set foot in America - lies within New York’s boundaries.

“There are millions of Americans who can trace their ancestral roots through Ellis Island,” said Dennis Vacco, New York’s attorney general. “Those folks who came here knew two things as they sailed into New York Harbor: They knew they were in America, and they knew they were landing in New York.”

Everyone agrees the original part of the island, three acres rising above the high-water mark, is in New York. In dispute is the rest of the 25.5-acre island created through years of filling in parts of the harbor that New Jersey claims.

New Jersey still wants the court to recognize New York’s jurisdiction as extending only to the original high-water mark. But that would leave the island’s main historic building, which houses the museum, split between the two states.

New York maintains that history, tradition and the law entitle it to sovereignty, citing an 1834 compact awarding Ellis Island to New York “with no limitation on the size of the island.”

The matter is largely symbolic, although some state sales tax revenue is at issue. The island is federal land and will remain under control of the National Park Service.


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