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ELLIS ISLAND, N.J.—The operating room is overgrown with poison ivy. The laundry room’s roof has collapsed. The maternity ward where frightened immigrants fresh off the boat gave birth to full-fledged American citizens is a junkyard of crumbled plaster, shattered glass and asbestos. In the hospital’s long corridors, it rains for days after storms.

Although the Ellis Island immigration building where 12 million foreigners began their American experience has been magnificently renovated and converted into a popular museum, the government hospital that provided free medical care to over 10 percent of them lies in ruins. After nearly a half-century of neglect, many of its 29 buildings are in danger of collapse. Some of their doors remain open, but only because they have fallen off their hinges.

Now preservationists are in a race against nature to save the south side of Ellis Island, to protect the eroding buildings from the elements until a plan is in place to restore them. They say a vital chapter of American history is decaying here in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, brick-and-limestone vestiges of an era when the U.S. government not only welcomed the world’s tired and poor with open arms, but healed the sick at its own expense.

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