How Immigrants Are Inspected at Ellis Island circa 1903
By Dr. Allan McLaughlin, U. S. Public Health and Marine Hospital Service.
Inspection of our immigrants may be said to begin in Europe. The immigrant usually buys his steamship ticket in his native town from an agent or subagent of the steamship company.
The agents of the best steamship lines are held responsible by the company, for the passengers they book for America, and if they ship one of the excluded classes they are likely to lose their agency.
This makes the agent examine the applicants for tickets, and probably quite a large number of defectives are refused passage by agents of the first-class lines. These defectives then usually try some less particular and smaller lines and take chances of escaping inspection at the Canadian or Mexican borders.
The next scrutiny to which the immigrant is subjected is that of the steamship authorities at the port of embarkation. This was formerly a perfunctory examination, and is so still, as far as some lines are concerned, but first-class lines, notably the English and German, examine the immigrants carefully and with due regard for our laws.
The strict enforcement of our laws, and especially the imposition of one hundred dollars fine for bringing to our ports any ease of a contagious character, have occasioned some improvement in the inspection made by ships' doctors at European ports.
At the port of embarkation the immigrants' names are recorded upon lists or manifests, each list containing about thirty names. After each name the steamship officials are required by law to record answers to a certain number of queries relating to the immigrant.
1903 Passenger Manifests
Section 12 of the act of 1903 provides that the manifests shall state, in answer to the questions at the top of the manifest sheet:
- The full name, age, and sex ;
- whether married or single;
- the calling or occupation;
- whether able to read or write;
- the nationality;
- the race;
- the last residence;
- the seaport of landing in the United States;
- the final destination, if any, beyond the port of landing;
- whether having a ticket through to such final destination;
- whether the alien has paid his own passage, or whether it has been paid by any other person or by any corporation, society, municipality, or government, and if so, by whom;
- whether in possession of thirty dollars, and if less, how much;
- whether going to join a relative or friend and if so, what relative or friend, and his name and complete address;
- whether ever before in the United States, and if so, when and where;
- whether ever in prison or almshouse or an institution or hospital for the care and treatment of the insane or supported by charity;
- whether a polygamist;
- whether an anarchist;
- whether coming by reason of any offer, solicitation, promise or agreement, expressed or implied, to perform labor in the United States, and
- what is the alien's condition of health, mental and physical, and whether deformed or crippled, and if so, for how long and from what cause.
The master or first officer and the ship's surgeon are required by the same law to make oath before an immigration officer at the port of arrival that the lists manifests are to the best of their knowledge and belief true, and that none of the aliens belongs to any of the excluded classes.
Alien Identification Cards
Each alien is furnished with a card, with his name, the number of the list on which his name appears and his number on that list. The cards of minor children are given to the head of the family. These cards are valuable and necessary for identification, and facilitate inspection at the port of arrival.
Conditions on Steamships
The condition of the steerage quarters of a modern steamship depends largely upon the age of the ship and the degree of overcrowding. The steerage of a first-class ship of recent construction will afford accommodations equal to those accorded second cabin passengers on less progressive lines.
First-class lines are careful also to prevent overcrowding. On some of the smaller and older ships the accommodations are limited, and overcrowding is permitted. But it is safe to say that the worst steerage accommodations to be found on any ship entering New York harbor to-day are infinitely better than the best afforded by the sailing vessels or old 'side wheelers' of the past.
Inspectors Boarding of Ocean Liners
On entering New York harbor the ocean liners are boarded by the state quarantine authorities, and the immigrants inspected for quarantinable disease, such as cholera, small-pox, typhus fever, yellow fever or plague.
Then the immigrant inspectors and a medical officer of the Pubic Health and Marine Hospital Service board the vessel and examine the cabin passengers, paying particular attention to the second cabin.
This cabin inspection is very necessary, and, before its institution, the second class cabin was the route most often employed by persons who found it necessary to evade the law. After the completion of the cabin inspection the ship's surgeon reports any cases of sickness among the aliens in the ship's hospital.
The medical inspector examines these cases and later arranges for their transfer, if deemed advisable, from the ship to the immigrant hospital. The immigrants are then taken from the ship upon barges to the immigrant station, Ellis Island.
Medical Examination at Ellis Island
The medical examination at Ellis Island is conducted according to a system which is the result of many years of development. The doctors work in pairs, and divide the inspection between them.
The immigrants, coming in single file, are examined for certain defects by the first doctor. who detains each one long enough to keep a space of ten to fifteen feet between the immigrants.
The second doctor, placed about thirty feet from the first, disregards that part of the examination entrusted to his colleague and confines his examination to such defects as are not looked for by the first doctor. The file of immigrants makes a right-angle turn just as it reaches the second doctor and this enables the examiner to observe the side and back of the passenger in the shortest time possible.
The examiners follow a routine in this examination, and the scrutiny begins at the approaching passenger's feet, before he comes within fifteen feet of the examiner.
The examiner's scrutiny beginning at the feet travels upward, and the eyes are the last to be inspected. In this way, lameness, deformity, defective eyesight (through efforts to adjust his vision, after making the turn, to a new course) are detected.
The gait and general appearance suggest health or disease to the practiced eye, and aliens who do not appear normal are turned aside, with those who are palpably defective, and more thoroughly examined later.
The medical examiners must ever be on the alert for deception. The nonchalant individual with an overcoat on his arm is probably concealing an artificial arm; the child strapped to its mother's back, and who appears old enough to walk alone, may be unable to walk because of infantile paralysis; a case of favus may be so skillfully prepared for inspection that close scrutiny is required to detect the evidences of recent cleansing, and a bad case of trachoma may show no external evidence and be detected only upon inverting the eyelid.
After the last alien in line has passed the doctor, the suspected ones turned aside are thoroughly examined, idiots and those suffering with a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease are certified and sent to the board of special inquiry.
Cases not deemed fit to travel are sent to the hospital, and cases with some disability likely to make them a public charge are certified accordingly and also sent to the board of special inquiry.
Minor defects, such as anemia, loss of an eye, loss of a finger, poor physique, low stature, etc., are recorded on the alien's card and he is allowed to go to the registry clerk and immigrant inspector in charge of the manifest, who takes the defect into consideration as contributory evidence, and may or may not send him to the board.
Grouping of Immigrants
After passing the doctors, the immigrants are grouped, according to the number of their manifest sheet, into lines of thirty or less. At the head of each line is a registry clerk, or interpreter, and an immigration inspector.
The clerk, or interpreter, interrogates each alien, and finds his name, and verifies the answers on the manifest sheet before him, and if, in the opinion of the immigrant inspector, the immigrant is not clearly and beyond doubt entitled to land, he is held for the consideration of the board of special inquiry.
Board of Special Inquiry
A board of special inquiry according to the law of 1903 `consists of three members selected from such of the immigrant officials in the service as the commissioner general of immigration, with the approval of the secretary of commerce and labor, shall designate as qualified to serve on such boards.'
"The decision of any two members of a board shall prevail and be final, but either the alien or any dissenting member of said board may appeal through the commissioner of immigration at the port of arrival, and the commissioner general of immigration to the secretary of commerce and labor, whose decision shall then be final, and the taking of such appeal shall operate to stay any action in regard to the final disposal of the alien, whose case is so appealed, until receipt by the commissioner of immigration at the port of arrival, of such decision."
To this `board of special inquiry' are sent the aliens certified by the medical officers as suffering from loathsome or dangerous contagious disease, idiocy, epilepsy, and insanity.
Deportation for Unfit Immigrants
In cases so certified the law is mandatory, and the medical certificate is equivalent to exclusion, the board simply applying the legal process necessary for deportation.
Aliens certified by the medical officers as suffering from disability, likely to make them public charges, are also held for examination before the hoard of special inquiry.
The board in these cases takes into consideration the medical certificate and such evidence as may be adduced by the alien or his friends which, in the opinion of the board, would offset the physical disability. In these cases the hoard has full discretionary powers, and in a great majority of instances the alien is admitted.
Those certified as defective by the doctors group themselves naturally into four classes, and the following table indicates the disposition of such cases by the boards of special inquiry at New York during a fairly representative month:
Disposition of Immigrants Certified at Ellis Island, New York
Month of October, 1903
|Reconciliation of Cases||
(Insanity and Idiocy)
(Likely to Become A Public Charge)
|Cases pending beginning of month||10||0||0||30|
|Cases certified during month||83||1||1||393|
|Total to be accounted for||93||1||1||423|
|Cases pending close of month||28||0||0||44|
New Immigrants Passing Inspection
Immigrants not detained for the board of special inquiry have their money changed into United States currency, and buy their railroad tickets, under the supervision of government officers.
If they are destined to points beyond New York City, government supervision is maintained until they are taken to one of the great railroad terminals and placed upon the waiting train.
These precautions are taken to protect the immigrants front the boarding house runners' and other con men who lie in wait for them at the Battery. Aliens detained as not clearly entitled to land are brought before the board, and, if the evidence is complete, either deported or discharged.
When the evidence is incomplete, the immigrant is detained pending the verification of his story, or the arrival of his relatives or friends.
All cases are disposed of as rapidly as possible, and immigrants are detained the minimum amount of time required for procuring and carefully considering the evidence in the case.
Those ordered deported are returned to the ship as soon as possible after the decision is rendered, providing no appeal is made.
Organizations and Representatives Meeting Immigrants
Missionaries and representatives of various religious denominations and societies have offices upon Ellis Island and render valuable assistance to the immigrant.
They provide temporary shelter and protection for discharged aliens, and direct them to legitimate employers of labor. In this way they relieve the government of caring for many temporarily detained aliens, especially young women traveling alone.
They write letters and send telegrams to the friends of the detained immigrants, and assist them in many other ways.
The fine adjustment of details and perfection of the system which enable the federal officers at Ellis Island to examine, under our laws, thousands of aliens each day must be seen to be fully appreciated. Nor is this careful and strict execution of our laws limited to Ellis Island.
The writer has roughly described the inspection at New York, because it is our largest port of entry, but the same attention to detail and strict enforcement of laws and regulations can be said to exist at all our ports, and an investigation, by any one interested, will reveal the fact that not only are the laws for our protection strictly enforced, but their enforcement is marked by humane and kindly treatment of the Alien.
Source: The Popular Science Monthly, February 1905, Volume 66, Pages 357-361. Photographs from the GG Archives Immigration Collection and the National Archives (NARA).