Ellis Island: A Piece of U.S. Immigration History


Immigration is a much talked about topic these days, especially with the elections coming up. Truth is we are all immigrants to this country, unless you are American Indian. Immigration was the foundation of this country. This is how we became the America that we know today…because foreigners (us or our ancestors) came to this country.

It reminded me of Irwin and I’s visit to Ellis Island in upper New York bay. You have to take a ferry to get there. It is part of the Statue of Liberty National Park. It is about a 15-minute ferry ride from Lady Liberty.  I learned so much about the U.S. immigration history.

 

Building Facade
Building Facade

If you haven’t heard of Ellis Island, it was where the first federal immigration station was built. This was where our federal immigration process began. 35 years before that, the New York City processed the incoming immigrants in the lower Manhattan, just across the bay, but in April 1890, the federal government assumed control and built the Ellis Island.

450,000 arriving immigrants were processed in Ellis Island just on its first year alone. It is estimated that a total of 8 million immigrants were processed here from 1892 to 1954. “Estimate” because in June 1897, a fire on the island destroyed all records dating back as early as 1855.

Inside the museum hall
Inside the museum hall

 

Having worked in the “modern” immigration era for more than 10 years myself, it was interesting to learn how the immigration process has changed in the last 100 years.

Back then, the process was the new arrivals were first sent to the immigration inspection doctor. According to the video we watched inside the museum, those with visible health problems or diseases were sent home or held in the island’s hospital for long periods of time. (Arriving immigrants back then should be in tip top shape after spending a long travel time in a ship, so there was no delay or possibility of getting rejected.)

After the check-up by the immigration inspection doctor, the foreign national went to a long line in this room called the Registry Room. Here, he/she would meet an inspector for interrogation. There could be approximately 5,000 people waiting at the same time.

 

The Registry Room
The Registry Room


Every inspector had 2 minutes per immigrant to determine that the information on their application forms were correct, he/she was not a danger to the society and that the person could take care of himself. They were asked 29 questions including name, occupation, and the amount of money carried (hint: you must at least have $15 to $25 in cash to ensure you can support yourself). Here, unskilled workers were rejected because they were considered “likely to become a public charge.”

About 2 percent of applicants were denied admission to the U.S. and sent back to their countries of origin for reasons such as having a chronic contagious disease, criminal background, or insanity. If the immigrant passed the health inspection and interrogation, they got a “landing card” (the permit to leave and enter New York). Processing time took about 3 to 5 hours.

Stairs of Separation
Stairs of Separation


If you get the chance to visit Ellis Island, you will see the “Stairs of Separation.” After completing the interrogation in the Registry Room, immigrants descended this divided flight of stairs, called the “Stairs of Separation.” The right-hand side led to the railroad ticket office; the left-hand side, to the New York ferry, and the central steps, to the detention rooms. This stairway marked the parting of the ways for many families and friends with different destinations. How’s that for an immigration system?

Approaching the Ellis Island
Approaching the Ellis Island


If you want to check if your ancestors or someone you know processed their immigration paperwork through Ellis Island, you can check here. You can even request a copy of their passenger record and a picture of the ship they arrived in. Go ahead. Try it! You might be surprised of your ancestry.

Sample Immigration Record
Sample Immigration Record




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