Ellis Island As Seen By The Camera Man
SIGNORA! Signora! Go up to the top of the stairs." It was one of the interpreters who spoke and, he added to an attendant, "Put the woman and the baby at the head of the line."
We were looking down the main stairway of the receiving room at Ellis Island, at the line of immigrants who were waiting to pass the medical examiners. Something had delayed the inspection, and this row of people were standing where they were struck by the chilly blasts that swept up through the open doors. In speaking thus, the official voiced the attitude of the immigration authorities toward the arriving alien as I saw it during ten days of unattended observation.
A tale is current of an unscrupulous vender of pies who, years ago, refused to give change to a little immigrant boy who had purchased of his wares. That lonely boy then resolved that when he grew up he would put it out of the power of such men to prey on the newly landed foreigner.
When President Roosevelt looked around for a man who would give the immigrant a square deal, he found this boy, now grown to man's estate, with proper experience in the service, and appointed him Commissioner of Immigration at the Port of New York, "solely on merit."
The literal accuracy of this story is immaterial. The spirit of it is true today. The personality of the Commissioner, thus appointed, permeates the department under his charge.
For nearly two weeks I watched the stream of human beings coming up the stairs and saw their treatment by the officials. Scarcely a cross word did I hear during the whole of that time. Once one of the interpreters relieved his feelings by a long-drawn-out "stupid," which sounded for all the world like a mother speaking to a provoking child. I watched the expression on the face of one of the inspectors as he tried to straighten out some slight irregularity in the papers of a woman who was at his desk.
Although I was across the room and heard not a single word, yet I was much impressed by his look of fatherly solicitude as he sought to temper the severity of our alien laws with kindness to the foreigner at our gateway. The interest of the immigrant was promoted so far as was compatible with justice to the country. During the interview, the baby toddled away from his mother, and the gentle way in which he was romped back to her side but completed the picture of applied Christianity.
One day while I was there a woman lost her money before she reached the inspectors. The $70 was a fortune to her and its loss meant the closing of the Gates of Hope. When her tale was known, the officials took up a collection to enable her to pass.
"They often try this trick, but this woman is telling the truth and really did lose her money," said one of them to me.
At another time, the noon hour found the room filled with immigrants awaiting inspection. One woman, with two small children, was waiting for her husband who chanced to be further down the line. The motherly air with which one of the matrons swooped down on the group and carried it off to lunch but emphasized the feeling of humanity which I had now come to expect at Ellis Island.
The care of the women extends beyond the portals of the entrance. I saw one attractive-faced young woman bathed in tears, but the adamantine officials refused to allow her to change her plans and to seek a situation in New York City, where she had no friends. She was consigned to cousins in Pennsylvania, and to Pennsylvania, she was sent.
Optimistic is the receiving and examining department; pessimistic, the department of deportation. One official spoke to me of the lies that are told the Special Inquiry Boards, often to enable the immigrant to enter this country and begin over again a life that has failed — if we take a charitable view of the case.
In one department stalks tragedy — grim and unrelenting. And yet I wonder if some of the charity of Him who accepted the ministrations of Mary Magdalen might not have served to save many a human being from misery without serious threat to the morals of the community. For I remember the home where childish prattle in the kitchen, tolerated by the liberal-minded homemaker, led to an honorable and happy marriage.
At Ellis Island, the subject is viewed from the standpoint of physical inability to work, and the certainty that, too often, the doors of honest labor will be closed in the face of the applicant. The husband must be able to provide for his wife and child; the lover must be made to go through the marriage ceremony and to be able to care for the family, or the department of deportation is put in charge of the case. The fate of the deported is often of such sadness that the department should exercise all possible consideration.
My work with the camera took many days, for I was determined to have the chosen types representative. I tried to select an equal number of good and bad. For one whole day, I devoted myself to photographing nothing but the poorest specimens that I could find, resolutely leaving all the pretty girls and fine looking men out of it. After a week I gave up the attempt, for there were no bad types, or so few as to be negligible.
A cherished example of the undesirable developed into a picture of the conventional Christ-head. After that, I devoted myself to typical people without regard to character, but always I avoided the best looking ones lest the result compare too favorably with the work at a Fifth Avenue studio.
I made amusing mistakes. After exhausting my knowledge of the sign language in directing the posing of one of the men, he asked me in English, "Are my eyes right now?" Further talk with him — not with signs, however — disclosed the fact that he was an Iowan fanner who had returned to his old home for a bride and was now bringing her with him to their new home in this country. When he introduced me to her, I no longer wondered that he went abroad for a wife.
A stately white-haired patriarch stood at the head of one group. An intellectual, refined, distinguished personality was proclaimed by every line that seamed his face, by every glance from his kindly eyes, and by the very attitude of the man. Inquiry of the inspectors revealed that these were second-cabin passengers whose relatives had not met them at the steamer.
They were now awaiting, at the Island, a reply to the telegram announcing their arrival.
The officials were as pleasant to me as to their charges, with their greetings of "Well, son, how goes it this morning?" to the "For God's sake keep at it and get through. I am responsible for all these people, and it makes the shivers run down my back whenever you take one outside the railing!" in answer to my suggestion that I absent myself on a day which promised to be full to overflowing.
Quickly I learned which interpreter could best beguile the beautiful girls into posing with his, "Will you go with him to the window?"
"No, Mademoiselle, he asks you because you are so pretty!" I discovered which could prevail upon the aristocratic-looking men, and which the rank and file. To one it was "Come!" and he came, to another "This gentleman wishes to take your picture, will you permit him?"
The reception was as varied as the sitter. The "Count," as we called him, was profuse in expressions of his appreciation of the honor done him. He told me that he was "a portrait painter, himself."
He borrowed a pencil to give me his address. After returning to his place, he discovered that lie still had the pencil. Officials were waved aside as he hastened across the room, and with a courtly bow and many apologies gave it back to me.
The Hebrews retained their air of submission. One, on his return to his companion, was asked, "What did he want, Jacob?" With a Hebraic shrug of his shoulders, he replied, "I know not, Isaac; he took my picture, and that was all! "
In the railroad waiting-room, I saw a homesick man forget his loneliness in the abandon of playing his fiddle. Gone were the four walls of the building, forgotten the medical examiners and the dreaded inspectors! The spell of the music again brought before him the vine-clad hills of sunny Italy.
Even in the detention room apprehensions are momentarily forgotten. In one department the beat of a drum banished dread of their fate from volatile people who swayed to the time. With the women, chatting, sewing, and quiet games whiled away the hours. The lottery of the future contains prizes for some but blanks for many.
Some are detained for the sailing of the steamer that is to bear them back whence they came. A few await the return of sick children from the hospital, or a message that they will never come back. Others are held for the coming of friends who failed to meet them at their arrival.
I had difficulty in maintaining a proper perspective. Continually I found myself forgetting that these people were not simply human beings, members of the human brotherhood who by a mere freak of fate were born in a foreign clime, but beings apart whom we must consider and weigh before we admit them to the privileges of the country. As the way to the ferry led me through doors which bore the legend "Push. To New York," and on the other side I passed through doors on which was printed "Pull," I thought with sorrow of the significance of the words.
Later, on the subway, it happened that I headed the line of passengers who wished to leave the train at Fourteenth Street. On the platform was a dense mass of well-dressed, well-appearing men and women.
Not a motion to make a passage did I see. I stopped bewildered, for I had just left a region where courtesy was the rule. But fortunately the man behind me was a citizen of the metropolis and, with his shoulder at my back, we went through that crowd which melted before the brute force to which it was accustomed. Again I felt sorry for the immigrants whom I had just left, for they now must learn the significance of those two American watchwords, "pull" and "push."
Those who best know the immigrant are his strongest advocates. The Commissioner, under whose eye five thousand new arrivals pass day after day, said to me as we watched the endless procession, "Look at those hands, toil-worn and hardened with work in the fields. These men come here looking for work, hard work, and they find it.
That is the sort of people that this country needs." One of the best known of the missionaries at Ellis Island expresses her faith in the alien, "I have been in the work nearly nineteen years, and each year increases my faith in humanity." A great southern state is seeking to direct immigration to its own borders. And this after investigation !
Too often the class that laments the influx of these humble people is one which holds up its dainty skirts when it visits Ellis Island as one of the "sights" of New York.
Dimock, Julian A., "Ellis Island As Seen By The Camera Man," The World Today, Volume XIV, No. 4, April 1908