Entering America

Entering America: Ellis Island

Noah Goldfarb, December 2016

Just as with the prospect of immigration on a whole, Ellis Island meant many things to many different people. To most, it meant hope, the possibility of a new life in an energetic country budding with possibilities. To others, Ellis Island represented a terrifying turning point in one’s life, the place where their countries of birth became mere memories and America became the decider of their futures. These immigrants came in hordes from all over the world, channeling through the 27.5-acre island in New York Harbor with the goal of entering the storied country rumored to be overflowing with opportunity and promise [1].

Temporarily closed following a fire in 1897, the island’s new facilities re-opened in 1900, in response to which a New-York Tribune article stated, “The impression of the way things are done in the United States made upon the immigrant who arrives here to-day will be a more favorable one than that made upon his brother who arrived here a week ago” [2]. Ellis Island was just as much a fresh start from America as it was for the people who passed through it. The country was playing catch up; Most other countries had been practicing globalization for decades if not centuries. If America hoped to be able to survive and prosper in this new global climate, they had to expand, they had to increase their workforce (both intellectual and physical), and they had to assert themselves as a dominant player on the global stage. Increasing immigration through the establishment of Ellis Island, which processed up to one million immigrants per year, demonstrated America’s newfound desire to boost its prominence as a world power [3]. It had both the land and the resources, all it lacked was the people. Between opening in 1892 and shutting down in 1954, over 12 million immigrants passed through the island, and some studies estimate that about half of today’s Americans can trace their family tree back to at least one ancestor who came through Ellis Island [4].

The opening of the island in 1892 was a key factor in the dissolution of America’s isolationist tendencies. In a way, it was a kind of recruitment; America welcomed the estranged workers and minds of the world, offering them a place to work, live, and start their lives anew in a country teeming with possibility. Not only did the island welcome foreigners with open arms, it also served as a tool for America to use in its mission of globalization. “Between the ends of the Civil War and World War I, the United States was transformed from a society of artisans, who largely controlled the pace of production, into the world’s leading industrial power” [5]. The opening of Ellis Island represented more than just a simple immigration station. It was indicative of a larger change taking place in America at large. As the country’s population was growing and globalization became the dominant philosophy of the world’s political landscape, America was forced to open its gates to the world.

The complications surrounding day-to-day operation of the “immigrant weigh station,” as it came to be known, shed light on the way America regarded these new members of our society. For a place that symbolized noble ideals such as freedom and liberty, the manner in which the shiploads of people were processed was not as idyllic as one might imagine. Immigration through the island was not a simple or heartbreak-free process. Most often, aliens spent weeks in cramped ships, carrying with them all of their possessions [6]. Upon arrival at the island, travelers would be ushered inside the Registry Room, where they would be subjected to a medical exam. Upon passing the medical exam, aliens would present their legal papers. Then, they would undergo a typically brief period of questioning, in which the inspectors would try to ascertain their reasons for immigration while keeping an eye out for possible reasons to deny entrance, such as past crimes or delinquent behavior [7].

All parts of this process were incomprehensibly stressful for the immigrants. What if something went wrong during the voyage? What if they had some unknown disease or ailment? What if the inspectors did not like their answers and they were turned away? There were countless ways that their dreams of living in America could be squashed in the blink of an eye. How is it appropriate to deny or approve a human being’s dreams based on a cursory medical exam and several minute interview? In many ways, this overwhelming situation was backwards and unfair, but although, “The processing experience seemed inhumane at times because of the sheer numbers… most of the commissioners in charge tried to move the people through as quickly as the ever-tightening immigration laws allowed” [8].

In some drastic instances, family members were separated from one another, which only served to perpetuate the bad perceptions of Ellis Island. During the health inspection phase, 15-year old Carmela Saturnino was discovered to have ringworm of the scalp [9]. The rest of her family, who was on its way to reunite with Carmela’s father, passed inspection without incident, but unfortunately, due to Carmela’s “loathsome and contagious disease,” they had to make a terrible choice: Return back to their home country as a family, or send some members to meet up with the father while others stayed by Carmela’s side on her voyage back to her homeland, Italy [10]. This was the unfortunate reality of Ellis Island. When the outcomes are so black-or-white: be granted entrance to America or be sent home, such complicated situations as Carmela’s resulted in some depressing choices being made. This was part of America’s immigration narrative, and similar moral quandaries persist even today: How does the country allow foreigners to become a part of our society while also ensuring protection for those who are already here? As Carmela and her family (as well as many others who faced similar dilemmas on the island) discovered, sometimes positive effects on a large scale can mean very upsetting realities on the small scale.

While it might seem that these vast throngs of hopeful Americans were simply shoved through the weigh-station like cattle, one or two occasionally being picked out due to physical deformities or bad attitudes, it is important to note the incredibly difficult situation which the island’s workers were tasked with dealing with. Thousands of immigrants passed through the island on any given day, forcing inspectors to make tough calls without much time to spare before moving onto the next person [11]. In a way, the island’s commissioners were being as generous as possible by not slowing down the processing of the immigrants, trying to grant as many people access as possible while still ensuring the safety of the country.

There are some historians who claim that the rejection of certain individuals was based not on their qualifications to become an American, but instead on their race or nationality. Despite the significant global outreach that Ellis Island represented, it still operated in a time period when many Americans were still holding onto racist and xenophobic ideologies. As University of Waterloo professor Jay Dolmage argues, “Ellis Island became the key laboratory and operating theater for American eugenics, the scientific racism that can be seen to define a unique era of Western history, the effects of which can still be felt today” [12]. Looking at the country’s cultural landscape at the time, it would come as no surprise to learn that the same racism which served as the basis for such discriminatory practices as the Jim Crow laws also existed at Ellis Island. On the island, inspectors were put in an odd position of power. In the span of just a few minutes, they had the opportunity to decide someone’s fate, assisted by a limited amount of information about the person’s background. Therefore, it was possible that on occasion, inspectors’ personal (and potentially racist) biases influenced their decisions, reflecting poorly on the racial climate of the country at the time [13].

Still, of the twelve million immigrants who passed through the island, only 250,000 were ever denied entrance to the country [14]. A monumental number of people were evaluated by the island and the criteria for rejection was incredibly vague, including such ambiguous wording as:

All idiots, insane persons, paupers or persons likely to become a public charge, persons suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease, persons who have committed a felony or other infamous crime … polygamists, and also any persons whose ticket or passage is paid for with the money of another or is assisted by others to come [15].

This is just one of the many pieces of legislation dictating who could and could not enter the country. With the broad strokes that such regulations painted reject-able individuals, it is amazing that only 2% of passer-throughs were ever sent back to their home countries.
Although people from all nations were welcomed to become part of the American melting pot, the American people and lawmakers were still wary of certain countries and/or races. This would eventually lead to the institution of the Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed act, which set immigration quotas on the basis of nationality [16]. This act demonstrated that while Ellis Island represented America’s emergence as a global player, the American people still possessed an outdated and prevailing distrust of foreigners. Due to America’s isolation leading up to the turn of the 20th century, coupled with the limitations placed on immigration starting in 1924, the period between 1890 and 1924 became a sweet spot for immigration to the United States. Almost everybody was accepted with only a minute percentage being turned away. Ellis Island’s lack of regulation created the perfect formula for American immigration which has not been matched any time before or after.

Ellis Island was symbolic of not only of America’s emerging globalist foreign policy at the turn of the 20th century, but also of a period of American culture. It was a mirror of the country it protected, reflecting the nation’s thirst for expansion, its cautious optimism regarding relations with other nations and cultures, and its willingness to end its stubborn isolation. Although it sits in the shadow of our nation’s greatest symbol of liberty and freedom, Ellis Island is perhaps a better example of these virtues than the Statue of Liberty itself. During its operating years, it put these virtues into practice and for that alone, Ellis Island must be remembered for the role it played in America declaring (loudly and proudly, per usual) its desire to become a part of one, connected world.


[1] The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island, Liberty Ellis Foundation, accessed on October 31, 2016,http://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/ellis-island-history.
[2] “Again at Ellis Island,” New York Tribune, December 17, 1900, Lib. of Congress, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1900-12-17/ed-1/seq-3/.
[3] Ibid.
[4] About Ellis Island, Liberty Ellis Foundation, accessed on October 31, 2016, http://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/about-the-ellis-island.
[5] Amy Fairchild, “Policies of Inclusion,” American Journal of Public Health 94(4)(2004): 528-539, PMCID: PMC1448289.
[6] Rita Koman, “Ellis Island: The Immigrant’s Experience,” Magazine of History 13, 4(1999): 31. Proquest, search.proquest.com.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Eric Martone, “Health Issues and Immigration on Ellis Island: The Case of Carmela Saturnino,” Teaching History: A Journal of Methods Spring 2014(2014): 3+, Gale World In Context (A369128335).
[10] Ibid.
[11] Annual Reports of the Commissioner General of Immigration, U.S. Immigration Statistics: Immigration Station at Ellis Island, NY, (Washington DC: 1892-1924).
[12] Jay Dolmage, “Disabled Upon Arrival: The Rhetorical Construction of Disability and Race at Ellis Island,” Cultural Critique, 2011, 24, Gale (A256365933)
[13] Ibid.
[14] Eric Martone, “Health Issues and Immigration,” 3+.
[15] Ibid.
[16] The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act), Department of State, accessed October 30, 2016, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/immigration-act.

Further Reading

Levine, Peter, Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sport and the American Jewish Experience (United States: Oxford University Press, 1993). Accessed on November 12, 2016. Retrieved from: http://site.ebrary.com/lib/worcesteruniv/detail.action?docID=10142185.

Fleeger, Robert L. Ellis Island Nation: Immigration Policy and American Identity in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), Accessed on November 13 2016, Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/worcesteruniv/detail.action?docID=10748484.

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