Connect · Immigration in U.S. History: Ellis Island

Immigration in U.S. History: Ellis Island


Immigration has become a major and contentious issue in today’s politics. As lawmakers and candidates strive to fashion the correct policies on immigration and naturalization today, it may be wise to take a look at how immigration was handled in America's past.

During the turn of the 19 “Ellis Island” system to many immigrants, which offered a legal and vetted entry into the United States of millions of newcomers in the late 19th and early 20th century. The approach helped make America into a diverse society that went on to great heights in the mid-­20th century and beyond.

The United States is indeed a nation of immigrants. And the way in which the arrivals came to this country before may offer lessons for the debates of today and bear upon the society of the future.

So here’s an excerpt from A Patriot's A to Z of America on that very subject:

Newcomers to Ellis Island would disembark by the thousands from steamship firms to be ferried over to the island’s immigration center. There officials checked the arrivals, to ensure they were healthy, crime­free, and eager to work.

Military surgeons with the U.S. performed brief physical exams. They also scrutinized immigrants for lameness, as they walked up a big staircase from the baggage area to the Great Hall. A physician would identify a person’s ailment by placing a chalk mark on his clothing. “L” stood for lameness, “CT” for trachoma, “S” for senility. “X” meant a suspected mental defect, and a circled X meant a definite "mental defect."

Immigrants were quizzed on where they were headed, how much money they had, whether they had a job lined up, and whether they had a criminal record. Wealthier immigrants, those traveling in first­ and second­class aboard the ships, were afforded a big advantage. It was assumed they had sufficient means to support themselves, and so faced less scrutiny than those traveling below decks in “steerage,” or third class.

Contrary to general belief, authorities did not anglicize the foreign-­sounding names of arrivals, but transcribed names from the steamship companies’ manifests. The whole process of asking questions and checking paperwork and physical status lasted about four hours.

They rejected about two percent of the arrivals. Among the reasons: contagious disease, mental insanity, or a likelihood of becoming indigent. Those refused admission had to take a ship back home. This could be heart­wrenching, especially when families had to decide whether to split up.

New York City had long been the nation’s busiest immigrant entry point...but con men would trawl the crowds of immigrants, often raking in their scarce funds for bogus jobs or fake railroad tickets.

To make immigration safer and more efficient, and handle the huge numbers, the federal government set up a new offshore center.

The first Ellis Island immigrant, processed on January 1, 1892, was 15­-year-­old Annie Moore, of Cork, Ireland. She was re­united with her parents, who’d arrived in America before her; the Superintendent of Immigration handed the girl a ten­-dollar gold piece. Other, later arrivals became famous.

Such as comedian Bob Hope, helicopter inventor Igor Sikorsky, “God Bless America” composer Irving Berlin, and Frank Capra, the Sicilian-­born director of iconic American films like It’s a Wonderful Life.

The number of immigrants at Ellis Island peaked in 1907 at 1.25 million; 11,747 arrived on that year’s busiest day.

From 1892 to 1924, 12 million new Americans stepped through the island’s gates.

It is estimated that 100 million Americans, a third of the country’s population, are their descendants.