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If Walls Could Talk

Main building, Ellis Island

The Immigration Experience at Historic Ellis Island

by Taylor Smith | Photos courtesy of The National Park Service and Wikimedia Commons

More than 12 million immigrants passed through the U.S. immigration portal at New York’s Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. These determined individuals — many of whom were escaping extreme poverty, famine, and persecution — often spent all of their savings on a single ticket, causing many families to become separated. Teenage children were left to cross the ocean alone, not knowing what was in store for them when they arrived in America, or whether they would every see their parents again.

This uncertainty did not dissipate after the ships sailed past the Statue of Liberty, a literal beacon of light, hope, and freedom to the arriving passengers. The inspection process at Ellis Island was another big hurdle to cross, and the health and confidence of the arriving immigrants — who often did not speak English and had eaten little and seldom bathed during their long journey — was not strong.

All arriving passengers were processed in the Registry Room where they were organized in pens similar to cattle or livestock. Public Health Service doctors poked and prodded as they asked the new arrivals to cough, stand up straight, and answer a few questions to assess their psychological state. Special attention was paid to individuals who appeared weak and off balance, struggling to carry their own luggage up the broad staircase to the Registry Room. Of primary concern were cholera, scalp and nail fungus, tuberculosis, epilepsy, trachoma, insanity, and other mental impairments. Trachoma, a contagious eye infection that can lead to blindness and death, was itself somewhat akin to a death sentence, sending afflicted patients back to their home country. During their examination, Ellis Island physicians used a hooked metal tool to literally flip a new arrival’s eyelid inside out. Excessive redness on the under-eyelid was taken as suspected trachoma. Cases of misdiagnosis were not uncommon.

An Albanian woman wearing her native costume, photographed at Ellis Island, N.Y. Circa 1905.

Registration involved documenting the arriving passengers’ names, age, and country of origin in encyclopedia-sized journals. The handwritten notes offer a chance for modern-day visitors to search for their own distant relatives who arrived in the United States via New York Harbor. All of the data has been digitized into the Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.’s Passenger Search, a database of over 65 million passengers. All that is needed is a first name (or initial) and last name. The database, found at www.libertyellisfoundation.org/passenger, even takes into account alternative spellings and close matches, as many new immigrants were given new names based on their ship boarding passes.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, your great-great-grandmother’s last name was not altered at Ellis Island, but most likely was changed when she bought her ship ticket at whichever European port she departed from. In general, the registration officials at Ellis Island spoke many of the same native languages as the new arrivals. However, most cases suggest that the attendants at the shipping ports, where most immigrants traveled to from their family homes, hurriedly wrote out tickets in whatever name they heard. This was then the official documentation (akin to a driver’s license for those who had no other forms of ID), that followed the passengers into the New World. Consonants and vowels were dropped from last names, which thus became more “Americanized.”

Similar to a modern Visa, registration required that all immigrants had potential work and a definite place to stay. Government officials at the time were greatly concerned that immigrants with no place to live and no relatives would live on New York City’s streets, become vagrants, and join various gangs and mafia rings. Organized crime was a constant battle for New York City’s police force (as it still is today).

Unmarried and unattached young women were not allowed to leave Ellis Island. For the disoriented, fearful, and exhausted women, having an aunt, uncle, cousin, or other relative currently living in New York City where they knew they could stay was sufficient, but they had to be able to give the registration official the exact address of where they were staying and what type of work they planning to pursue. It was not entirely uncommon for pimps to show up at the registration process, having paid off Ellis Island officials, to recruit single women into prostitution. Impromptu (but binding) wedding ceremonies were sometimes conducted on the spot, so that women with no husband and unconvincing stories had somewhere to go. Little did these ladies suspect that they had married into a web of prostitution affiliates.

Once they had passed the medical inspections and registration, the immigrants were free to enter the New World and adjust to the sights and sounds of the United States. Those less fortunate were sent back to their home country or died in containment facilities on the island. It is estimated that more than 120,000 immigrants were forced to sail back and 3,500 immigrants perished from disease on the island itself.

Portrait of three women and a baby. Just arrived to Ellis Island along with hundreds of other immigrants that day. Circa 1905.

Beyond prostitution and organized crime, other significant concerns for American politicians and the general public during Ellis Island’s half-century of operation were criminality, anarchists, and communists. Suspected Bolsheviks were labeled as “immoral” and were not allowed to leave Ellis Island. Of the 20 percent of immigrants that were detained at the island, 10 percent were detained for moral or political reasons.

Fear of radicals was (and is) nothing new in America. Dating back to 1692, the Puritan Minister Cotton Mather expressed his concern over “heretics and malignants” to the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony:

“To Ye Aged and Beloved, Mr. John Higginson, There be now at sea a ship called Welcome, which has on board one hundred or more of the heretics and malignants called Quakers, with W. Penn … at the head of them. The General Court has accordingly given secret orders to Master Malachi Huscott, of the brig Porpoise, to waylay the said Welcome slyly as near the Cape of Cod as may be, and make captive the said Penn and his ungodly crew, so that the Lord may be glorified and not mocked on the soil of this new country with the heathen worship of these people. Much spoil can be made by selling the whole lot to Barbados, where slaves fetch good prices in rum and sugar and we shall not only do the Lord great service by punishing the wicked, but we shall make great good for His Minister and people, Yours in the bowels of Christ, Cotton Mather.”

Such expressions of nativism dramatically rang out through the general voices and consciousness of U.S. society during America’s period of isolationism during World War I. The anti-immigration viewpoint peaked in the spring of 1917 when newspapers, radio, comics, advertisements, songbooks, films, theater, and other forms of marketing warned of the backwardness and inhumane quality of the foreigners, suggesting that America was on its way to becoming a melting pot of non-English speaking criminals, radicals, and racially subset hoards. American children consumed this type of racial profiling in sing-alongs, backyard games, and comic strips. Fear of immigration was not just a concern of the upper classes; the American farmer, laborer, and factory worker feared that the Irish, Italians, Polish, and Russian arrivals would strip them of their hard-earned jobs.

The nativist years prompted President Warren G. Harding to sign into law the first Quota Act in 1921, which effectively ended America’s “open-door policy.” Monthly quotas were established and limitations were placed on the nationalities of those being allowed into the country. It was intended that census data would reflect a reduction in the number of specific ethnic groups that were essentially deemed “a threat to American society.” Additional anti-immigration restrictions followed. The National Origins Act forced prospective immigrants to undergo an extensive investigation in their home country before ever boarding a ship to America. Most were never allowed to depart.

With immigration slowing to a halt by the 1930s, Ellis Island was used primarily as a detention and deportation center. During World War II, some 7,000 detainees and political prisoners were housed on the island. Within the surreal setting, Nazi prisoners were given the right to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday each year.

After 62 years of operation, Ellis Island’s Immigration Services closed in 1954. For the next 10 years, the buildings stood vacant and filled with flood waters from each passing hurricane season. In 1965, Ellis Island became part of the Statue of Liberty Monument overseen by the National Park Service. Twenty-five years later, in 1990, the Main Building was fully renovated and restored into the Immigration Museum, which remains open to the public today.

Now, through the efforts of the National Park Service and the nonprofit Save Ellis Island, more than 30 other buildings on the island have also been restored. For modern-day visitors, the walls of the processing buildings on Ellis Island seem to have their own voice and life, eager to tell the tales of the hopeful passengers who passed through their halls.

To plan your own trip to both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island’s Immigration Museum, visit www.libertyellisfoundation.org.

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