THROUGHOUT Ellis Island's history as a port of entry for 12 million immigrants, the only way to get on and off the isolated island was by boat.
Now, there is a battle in Congress over whether to fund a permanent bridge from New Jersey.
The issue pits the Congressional delegations of the two states in a muscle- flexing exercise. Last week, in a rare display of bipartisanship, a group of New York representatives denounced the proposed pedestrian bridge as an example of pork-barrel spending and the desecration of a national monument.
''It violates the spirit of the island,'' said Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey, who joined with Republican Susan Molinari and Democrat Rep. Jerrold Nadler in opposing the bridge.
Funding for the bridge is sponsored by N.J. Democrat Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who thus far has managed to keep $15 million in funding in the Senate appropriations bill, which will be considered in May. If the funding survives in the Senate, it will still have to get past a joint House-Senate conference committee, since the House rescinded the financing in its own budget bill.
The prospect of a permanent bridge has drawn the ire of a packet of preservation groups. They believe the current ferry ride evokes the feeling of the immigrants who all came and left by boat. ''This is like building a monorail to take people down the Grand Canyon,'' says Phil Weinberg of the New York Parks and Conservation Society. Mr. Lautenberg's press office refers to the complainers as rich peoples' ''goody-goody groups.''
The Ellis Island dust-up is part of ongoing sniping between the two states. Under former Gov. Jim Florio (D), New Jersey raided the Big Apple to attract Wall Street firms and their back-office operations across the Hudson. Both states have battled in recent years over professional sports teams.
To the New York delegation, the bridge is one more affront. Represenative Lowey accuses New Jersey of making a ''backdoor attempt'' to ''steal one of New York's most important landmarks.''
In fact, the two states are arguing their case before the US Supreme Court, which last October appointed a ''special master'' to determine the facts of the case. The litigants will meet next week to examine the archives.
NEW YORK'S ownership claim goes back to an 1834 compact between the two states that established the boundary as the middle of the Hudson River.
Although Ellis Island was in the New Jersey portion, the compact awarded it to New York. But Jersey City has carried the island on its tax rolls since the 1700s.
The issue of ownership may seem moot since both islands are urban national parks managed by the National Park Service. But the Parks Service is currently developing a request for a proposal for a conference center on Ellis Island. If such a conference center were built, it might become part of a community's tax rolls.
Bridge proponents argue the 1,500-foot structure will make it easier and cheaper for some of the 1.5 million visitors to get to the island. The ferry ride currently costs $7 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $3 for children.
In surveys included in a 2,000-page draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the Park Service found that 7 percent of those polled would use the bridge. The final draft EIS is due in July.
The Park Service seems to be leaning toward a bridge. ''We think there is a lot of value to the lowest, narrowest, least intrusive bridge possible,'' says Richard Wells, acting chief of staff at the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island. But he adds that this conclusion ''is always subject to change considering advice from the public.''