Ellis Island Hope and Tears

Ellis Island, 1922 with Two Barges Docked in Front of the Main Building.

Ellis Island, 1922 with Two Barges Docked in Front of the Main Building. INS Photo by Brown Bros., NY. INS Reporter, Spring 1986. GGA Image ID # 14b22fbcd0

When the Statue of Liberty became New York's most visible landmark in 1886, most Americans in other states were only dimly aware of her. But because she stood in America's busiest harbor, her majestic figure was the first image of a new home for millions of European immigrants.

The great Atlantic migration, which began about 1820, added nearly ten million people to the United States by 1880. By 1890, another five million arrived. Of the 15 million immigrants who came in those 70 years, nearly 11 million came through the port of New York, according to most estimates.

It was the time when whole boatloads of immigrants steamed into New York harbor at an average rate of 1200 per day. Their first stop was the immigration depot at Castle Garden in Battery Park, where they were settled after their long journey and processed for entry into the country.

Castle Garden

Castle Garden was operated by the New York State Board of Emigration Commissioners as a single landing point and processing center for immigrants. It included all the facilities and services necessary to examine and register them, to assist them in finding housing, jobs, and transportation, and to care for the sick and destitute. With everything they needed in one location, the immigrants were protected from swindlers and dishonest labor recruiters seeking to exploit them.

Immigration was still a state responsibility at this time but was moving in the direction of federal control. And as the influx of immigrants into the port of New York continued unabated, it was apparent that the Federal Government would need to take control of immigration someplace other than the outdated and overcrowded facilities at Castle Garden.

The best sites for a new and larger immigration station were three islands in New York Harbor: Governor's Island, Bedloe's Island, and Ellis Island. Ellis Island was chosen, and plans were made immediately to convert it from a naval powder magazine to a Federal immigration station. For that purpose, President Benjamin Harrison signed an appropriation of $85,000 on March 26, 1890.

Castle Garden shut down April 18, 1890, having processed over eight million immigrants in 35 years of operation. While Ellis Island was being prepared, the Treasury Department assumed full control of the processing of immigrants, taking them in at the Barge Office at the Battery not far from Castle Garden.

Immigration Act of 1891

A year later. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1891, the First comprehensive law for national control of immigration. It created the Bureau of Immigration in the Treasury Department. It placed a Commissioner of Immigration in the port of New York, officially ending state control and processing of immigrants.

One of the Bureau's first actions was to report that "The new and commodious Immigrant Station on Ellis Island. . . is practically completed, and the business of receiving and inspecting immigrants will be transferred thither from the Barge Office as soon as certain details are arranged."

The Station opened on January 1, 1892. The first immigrant to be admitted was an Irish teenager named Annie Moore, who was welcomed with ceremonial speeches and presented with a $10 gold piece.

Ellis Island Examination Room, 1911. INS Photo.

Ellis Island Examination Room, 1911. INS Photo. INS Report, Spring 1986. GGA Image ID # 14b236eb19

The facilities on the island included a large, two-story administration building, a hospital, a powerhouse, a bathhouse, and some living quarters. The main building, according to a report in Harper's Weekly (October 24, 1891), "looked like a latter-day watering-place hotel, presenting to the view a great many-windowed expanse of buff-painted wooden walls, of blue-slate roofing, and of light and picturesque towers."

A fire swept through the island in June 1897, five years after it opened, and utterly destroyed the original wooden buildings. They were rebuilt in brick and limestone and reopened three years later, but many of the state and federal records lost in the fire could never be replaced. During the rebuilding, immigrants were received at the Barge Office once again.

In the decade after Ellis Island opened, 3,047,130 immigrants arrived at the port of New York. At the same time, only 640,434 came through all other ports of entry. Immigration reached its peak during the first decade of the 20th century when 8,795,386 arrived nationwide. 6,853,756 (78%) in New York. The year 1907 brought the all-time high of 1,285,349 immigrants to the United States, including 1,004,756 to New York through Ellis Island.

Isle of Tears

As years passed by and immigrants passed through, Ellis Island took on a character of its own. Depending on when they arrived and how long they stayed at the immigration station, some immigrants would see Ellis Island as an "Isle of Hope," a gateway to freedom and opportunity. But some others would find it an ''Isle of Tears," especially those who were caught up in the mass migrations of the early 1900s. At the time when processing took days and even weeks, Ellis Island was a grueling ordeal for the immigrants who were delayed or detained, a nightmare for those who were deported.

The journey from their homelands to the United States was long and arduous. Voyages lasted up to four months, depending on the vessel, and subjected the immigrants to severe mental and physical stress. At best, they would arrive in America sick, exhausted, and very poor. At worst, they would die in steerage or contract smallpox, cholera, or typhus and never go beyond the contagion wards on Ellis Island.

Immigrants who made it to the Great Hall of the main building were greeted by mass turmoil. As one journalist reported, it was a "sea of straining immigrant faces, beards, boots, long overcoats, a babel of languages and dialects, heavily clad women in babushkas clutching in one hand a saucer-eyed child and in the other a knotted bed-sheet bulging with the possessions of the first half or a life. Americans-to-be!'

Immigrant Examinations

Most immigrants agree that the single most terrifying aspect of Ellis Island was the constant fear of being deported. They had to go through physical and mental examinations to determine who was eligible to enter the country and who was to be sent back.

The physical exam was known as the "six-second medical." Immigrants formed two lines and made their way up the massive staircase past the medical inspectors to the Great Hall. Doctors hid behind the wall next to and near the top of the staircase so they could observe the immigrants without being seen. Immigrants would be watched and marked with chalk if they had suspected illnesses. An "H" chalked on an immigrant meant they had heart trouble, an "L" meant lameness, "E" was for eyes and possible trachoma, "S" stood for senility, "Pg" meant pregnant, "Sc" indicated a scalp condition, possibly lice, and a circle with a cross in the middle meant feeblemindedness and automatic deportation.

One immigrant wrote of the fear of being deported, "I will always remember the huddled frightened people, the terror of being shipped back. I remember sitting on those wooden benches with my mother saying all the time, 'Don't act funny, don't say anything foolish,'" fearing they would be suspected of being mentally unbalanced.

Ellis Island "looked like a latter-day watering-place hotel, "according to a report in Harper's Weekly in October 1891.

The mental exam took two minutes and was basically a mental competency check. Immigrants were asked their name, occupation, age, place of birth, history of mental illness, marital status, and destination. Most immigrants gave acceptable answers and were tagged with a numbered ticket indicating the railroad line in the direction they were headed.

A recruiting center was opened on Ellis Island for immigrants to sign up for the armed forces during the war years. This would benefit the immigrants as well as the country. A surprisingly good number joined. After the war, a referral service was set up so that immigrants could get jobs before leaving the island. Approximately 200 immigrants used the service per day and found jobs rather quickly.

The processing of immigrants was an enormous undertaking. With up to 5,000 immigrants passing through Ellis Island every day during the peak years, immigration officials often had to work long hours continuously examining aliens. Some examiners reportedly dealt with 400 a day.

Still, most immigrants made it through in only a few hours. As one journalist described, "if they could prove they weren't diseased or feebleminded and could support themselves and knew where they were headed, they were free to step through the final, longed-for green door marked PUSH TO NEW YORK."

Early Immigration Reform

The Federal immigration station on Ellis Island marked the first real attempt at regulating immigration precisely at the time when some regulation was most needed. After immigration rose to an all-time high between the turn of the century and the first World War, Congress took action to try to control it.

The Immigration Act of 1917 established a literacy test for the first time. It made the existing mental and physical examinations even tougher. New health requirements were put into effect, excluding persons with contagious diseases or histories of mental illness. Also, as a result of World War I, security regulations were enacted. All of these things helped curb the tremendous flow of immigrants into the country.

The number of immigrants dropped sharply from 1.2 million in 1914 to an average of about 300,000 during each of the war years to only 110,000 in

1918. At the same time, the proportion of immigrants arriving in New York dropped below 50 percent for the first time in history, amounting to 47% of the U.S. total in 1916, 44% in 1917, 26% in 1918, and only 19% in 1919.

When immigration rose again, to 430,000 in 1920 and 805,000 in 1921, Congress enacted legislation in 1921 and 1924 to further limit the number of aliens allowed into the country. These laws imposed the first substantial restrictions on the flow of immigrants by setting numerical quotas for admissions by nationality. At the same time, American consulates abroad started screening prospective immigrants at their points of origin so that only those immigrants requiring further examination came to Ellis Island. The rest were taken to the mainland, and the number of people passing through the island continued to decrease.

The Great Depression marked the first time in history that emigrants outnumbered immigrants.

The Great Depression marked the first time in history that emigrants leaving the United States outnumbered immigrants coming in. It triggered a decline both in the number of arrivals and in the number of admissions. Fewer aliens dared to come, and many who tried were denied visas because they lacked adequate means of support.

In 1933, for example, only 23,000 aliens were admitted—21,000 in New York—and more than 80,000 departed. In the same year, a record number of illegal aliens—nearly 20,000—were deported for the sake of many jobless Americans.

As a result of decreasing immigration and increasing deportations, Ellis Island lost the name "immigration station." It became a detention center for excludable or questionable aliens. During the year of lowest immigration and highest emigration, 1933, about 4,500 incoming aliens were detained at the island until they were found to be admissible, usually after three or four days, and more than 7,000 outgoing aliens were held there to await deportation.

Diagram from "A Report on Ellis Island as an Immigrant Depot, 1890-1954" by Thomas M. Pitkin (National Park Service, 1966).

Diagram from "A Report on Ellis Island as an Immigrant Depot, 1890-1954" by Thomas M. Pitkin (National Park Service, 1966). INS Reporter, Spring 1986. GGA Image ID # 14b27c79ad

Economic recovery brought an upward trend in immigration until 1940 when war broke out in Europe and forced another decline. The low point came in 1943, well after the United States joined the war, when fewer than 24,000 immigrants arrived, and the detention center on Ellis Island housed German, Italian, and Japanese enemy alien civilians. During the war, the island was also used as a Coast Guard station.

The war years 1941-1945 brought fewer than 40,000 immigrants through New York harbor, a mere 23% of the 171,000 immigrants who came to America during that period.

Declining Years

Even when immigration picked up again after the war, the use of the island tapered off rapidly. When the Coast Guard left in 1946, the Attorney General wrote to the Commissioner of Public Buildings: "Owing to excessive operating costs, I deem it imperative that the Immigration and Naturalization Service vacates its quarters on Ellis Island in New York harbor at the earliest possible date." But because of its excessive amount of space, inconvenient location, and costly upkeep, no other agency wanted it. It remained open as a detention and deportation center.

The beginning of the end for Ellis Island came in 1950 when it began processing immigrants once again. The passage of the Internal Security Act of 1950 required immigrants to be screened for membership in Communist or Fascist groups, so aliens arriving in New York were taken to Ellis Island for that purpose. In 1951, almost 143,000 of the 206,000 aliens who came to America went through Ellis Island, and the number of detainees there increased from 400 to 1200 on a daily average. The renewed examinations and increased detentions brought a flurry of criticism from the press, which persuaded Congress to revise the law and end the requirement for screening aliens who already held visas.

Ellis Island then reverted to a detention facility, and INS began to renovate and repair the long-neglected buildings. After several significant improvements were made, however, INS changed its detention policy and released most detainees on parole unless they were "likely to abscond." The population of Ellis Island dropped

from a few hundred on November 1, 1954, to about 25 ten days later, and INS closed it along with other large detention centers. The last alien was dispatched from the island on November 12, 1954.

As a result of the new detention policy, more than 200,000 aliens entered the U.S. through the port of New York between November 1954 and June 1955. Still, only 16 of these were detained in local facilities in Manhattan.

After the INS moved out of Ellis Island, the General Services Administration (GSA) declared it surplus government property. It offered it for sale to the highest bidder in 1956. They were, in turn, swamped with bids ranging from 50 cents to over a million dollars.

Many suggestions were made as to the future of Ellis Island. The issue was divided between those who were interested in preserving the island for its historical value and those who wanted to see it serve a more practical function.

During its conversion from arsenal to (immigration) depot, the island itself had to be enlarged to accommodate more buildings.

GSA received all kinds of proposals for the island including, for example, an international cathedral, a maritime museum, a nursing home for veterans, a center for the mentally retarded, a college for exceptionally talented students, housing for the elderly, a facility for the care and training of needy youth, and an entertainment spot with theaters and restaurants.

The fate of the island was difficult to decide because of the romance of its history. But in I960, President Eisenhower took Ellis Island off the commercial bidding stand because of its "sentimental attachment as a gateway to the nation." He strongly opposed converting the island into a commercial piece of property.

As a result, the island was virtually abandoned until a plan for its use could be formulated. The only inhabitant of the island, while it stood idle, was "Millie," a four-year-old female Doberman pinscher watchdog. She guarded the island against vandals at night and was joined during the day by a human guard. Except for these two, Ellis Island was left unused and untended.

As the island lay dormant for 10 years, the immigration rate remained relatively steady at about 282,000 per annum. Of that number, 131,000 (47%) were coming through New York in sight of the Statue of Liberty and of the crumbling immigration station.

Graph Showing Immigration for the Years 1820 to 1980.

Graph Showing Immigration for the Years 1820 to 1980. INS Reporter, Spring 1986. GGA Image ID # 14b29947d6

National Monument

On May 11, 1965, President Johnson placed Ellis Island under the care of the Department of Interior's National Park Service. With a $6 million down payment from Congress, he declared Ellis Island an integral part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. The suggestion was made by Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall to make Ellis Island a public memorial where more than 100 million Americans today could trace their roots. To further celebrate Ellis Island's new status as a monument, a bill was signed in October 1966, providing for the striking of an Ellis Island medal.

As public awareness and concern grew, groups began forming to raise additional money for the island. Peter Sammartino, founder and once chancellor of Fairleigh Dickenson University in New Jersey, started the "Restore Ellis Island Committee" to gain money from Congress as well as to raise public consciousness. Within a short time, he had recruited fifty representatives from various ethnic groups in the U.S.

In 1976, Congress appropriated $1 million to prepare the island to be opened to the public. And in June of the same year, ferry services began shuttling tourists back and forth.

President Reagan announced the formation of the Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Centennial Commission in 1982. The Commission was created to raise money to restore and preserve both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and to plan for celebrations to be held upon completion of each project.

A goal of $230 million was established to cover the estimated cost of repairing and rededicating the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Of the total, $108 million is earmarked for Ellis Island and $62 million for the Statue of Liberty for both restoration

and preservation. The statue will be wholly restored, and Ellis Island's seawall will be rebuilt along with many of her buildings to create an elaborate immigration museum for the public. Also, of the remaining $60 million, $20 million will go toward the ongoing maintenance of both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, $28 million will be used for education and for celebrations, and the final $12 million will cover administrative and campaign costs.

Immigration After Ellis Island

The pattern of immigration has changed dramatically since the heyday of Ellis Island. New York City has remained the largest port of entry. Still, its proportional share of immigrants dropped steadily from a high of 76% of the nation's total in the first decade of the 1900s to below 30% in the 1970s. During the same period, the percentage of immigrants who came to the West Coast rose from less than one percent to nearly 25%.

Immigrants who crossed the southern border from Mexico accounted for a scant 1.5% of the total in the years before 1911 but for 15% after 1970. By comparison, those who entered from Canada represented a relatively stable proportion increasing only slightly from 7% to 9% in the same period.

These changes were brought about more by circumstance than by design. For example, the growth of air travel shifted significant entry points from seaports to airports. Social, economic, and political conditions in Europe, Asia, and Central America moved main avenues of migration from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the Caribbean. And the rapid development of cities in southwestern states drew more migrants away from traditional eastern destinations.

Many changes, however, were the result of legislation and government policy, beginning with the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. This comprehensive legislation was passed by Congress over President Truman's veto to consolidate all previous immigration and nationality laws into one statute. Although it continued the national origins quota system and tightened the existing security and screening procedures, this law established the basis for many policies that remain in effect today. Generally, these policies have been less restrictive than the ones they superseded.

Aerial View of Ellis Island circa 1920s.

Aerial View of Ellis Island circa 1920s. National Park Service Photo. INS Reporter, Spring 1985. GGA Image ID # 14b31e990f

Partly as a result of the law's more liberal posture, immigration rose from 170,000 in 1953 to 327,000 in 1957. It leveled off to below 300,000 per year in the late fifties and early sixties but, generally, an upward trend had been established. The decade ending in 1960 brought in 2.5 million immigrants— more than twice as many as those who came the previous decade.

The trend continued after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which became fully effective in 1968. It abolished the quota system and set up annual numerical limitations of 170,000 immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere and 120,000 from the Western Hemisphere, with no more than 20,000 from any one nation. For those who were subject to the numerical limitations, several preference categories were established to further balance admissions. The numerical restrictions did not apply to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens or to certain classes of special immigrants.

The most significant effect of the 1965 legislation was the surge in Asian immigration, which increased 100% in one year, from less than 20,000 in 1965 to 40,000 in 1966. From 1966 to 1970, about 320,000 immigrants were admitted from the Philippines, China, India, Korea, Japan, and other Asian and Mideastern nations.

Along with the growth in immigration came a rise in the number of refugees who came to America after 1954. Besides the hundreds of thousands of persons displaced by World War II and the Korean War, these refugees included 38,000 Hungarians who escaped after their attempted revolution in 1956 and 22,000 victims of earthquakes and floods in the Azores and Indonesia in 1958. Also, the United States admitted some 264,000 Cuban refugees between 1966 and 1975 and more than 137,000 Indochinese refugees between 1977 and 1980.

These numbers were in addition to regular immigration totals, which reached a total of 4.5 million in the decade ending in 1980. This continued growth in the number of aliens coming to America was due not only to the greater acceptance of refugees but also to changes in the law, which eliminated differences between Eastern and Western Hemispheres, immigrant ceilings, and preferences.

With the 1980s came a new administration and new efforts in Congress to reform immigration law. In 1981, President Reagan announced an immigration policy based on eight principles:

  1. To continue America's tradition of welcoming people from other nations and sharing the global responsibility of resettling those who flee oppression.
  2. To ensure adequate legal authority to enforce the laws and maintain control over U.S. borders.
  3. To reflect in law and policy, the special relationship with Canada and Mexico.
  4. To recognize the mutual benefit of Mexicans working in areas of the U.S. that have special labor needs.
  5. To recognize the contributions of illegal aliens who have become productive U.S. residents and give them legal status without encouraging more illegal immigration.
  6. To improve the government's ability to establish and carry out an immigration and refugee policy that has a more balanced impact nationwide.
  7. To seek new ways to integrate refugees into society without nurturing their dependence on welfare.
  8. To recognize the international scope of immigration and refugee problems and to seek greater international cooperation in solving them by promoting economic development and reducing motives for illegal migration.

These principles were reflected in immigration reform legislation (formerly known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Bill) passed by the Senate in 1982 and again, with revisions, in 1985. Basically, the proposed law would relax some restraints on legal immigration but mainly would strengthen control over illegal immigration. It includes provisions to discourage unlawful entry by raising penalties for alien smuggling and fraud and by imposing sanctions on employers who knowingly hire undocumented aliens, to improve programs permitting aliens to be brought in as temporary workers, and to extend legal status to undocumented aliens who have lived in the U.S. since January 1, 1980.

The proposal is still under discussion in both houses of Congress. At the time this summary was written, some action was expected before the 1986 summer recess, although further postponement is still possible. In the meantime, immigration has continued at a rate of well over half a million per year, totaling nearly 2.3 million from 1982 through 1985.

As President Reagan said when he introduced his administration's immigration policy in 1981, "Immigration and refugee policy is an important part of our past and fundamental to our national interest. With the help of the Congress and the American people, we will work towards a new and realistic immigration policy, a policy that will be fair to our own citizens. At the same time, it opens the door of opportunity for those who seek a new life in America!'

Kathleen P. Barry, "Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears," in the INS Reporter, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, Vol. 34, No, 2, Spring 1986, pp. 7-13.

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