Ellis island opened in 1892 as a federal immigration station. Millions of newly arrived immigrants passed through this station until it closed in 1954. It has been estimated that around 40% of all current U.S. citizens can trace at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island.
We disembark the Liberty Island Ferry and walk towards the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. In the first exhibition, Journeys: The Peopling of America, 1550-1890, we learn about the great diversity of people that populated the territory that now makes up the United States. We read about those fleeing persecution or poverty and those seeking freedom and opportunity as well as those moved forcibly against their will by way of enslavement, imprisonment or coercion.
In the early years of American immigration those arriving in the country faced few restrictions or regulations. However, by the 19th century there was a growing concern that immigrants might burden society if they were seriously ill, too poor to support themselves, or vulnerable to exploitation.
We reach the arrival room and hear the chaos that arrival immigrants would have encountered at Castle Garden, lower Manhattan, one of the first state-run immigration depots. We can pick out the voices of excited passengers speaking different languages, customs inspectors questioning the new arrivals, longshoremen calling out as they unload baggage and cargo and street vendors hawking their wares.
In 1890 the government decided to replace Castle Garden with the first federal immigration station on Ellis Island. In order to do this artesian wells were dug and island’s size was doubled to over six acres with landfill created from incoming ship’s ballast and the excavation of subway tunnels in New York. As the control of immigration was turned over to the federal government the immigration laws were extended to keep out ‘undesirables’ such as criminals and prostitutes.
On the 1st of January 1982 the Ellis Island Immigration officially opened and three large ships were waiting to land. On that day seven hundred immigrants passed through Ellis Island and nearly 450,000 followed throughout the year. Throughout the next five decades more than 12 million people passed through the island on their way into the United States.
During the peak years of immigration the U.S. Public Health Service was responsible for the medical inspection and treatment of those 12 million immigrants. By 1911 more than 15 buildings on the island were devoted to medical care. There buildings included laboratories, an x-ray plant, a psychiatric ward, a morgue, a 275-bed hospital and a 450-bed contagious disease ward. Throughout the years that Ellis Island was used as an immigration centre over 3,500 people died on the island and over 355 babies were born on the island.
We follow the stairway to the registry room. As new arrivals entered the main building they were assembled into a line that proceeded up the stairway to the Registry Room. While waiting in the line they were inspected by service doctors.
Service doctors stationed on the stairway sometimes had only six seconds to scan each immigrant during the line inspection to detect those who should be held for a more thorough medical examination. In 1917 the U.S. Public Health Service printed a list of over 60 health conditions, from anaemia to varicose veins, that the doctors could spot during these brief inspections. Approximately nine out of 100 were marked with an ‘X’ during line inspection and sent to the medical examination room for further questioning.
By 1917 immigration laws prohibited the admission of all immigrants diagnosed as suffering from any mental impairment. Doctors used standard mental exams however the wide variety of educational and cultural background made the assessment very complicated. Illiterates that were suspected of being mentally deficient were given a mental comparison tests and doctors based their decisions on their subject’s level of acquired knowledge, problem-solving, behaviour and attitude.
At the top of the staircase we reach the Registry Room. This room was, for many, the first stop in America. Most immigrants would have to wait between three and five hours on Ellis Island for a brief medical and legal examination prior to admittance to the United States. Some would have to spend longer on the island for additional testing or a legal hearing and around 2% would have to return home.
We emerge into the sunlight and reflect on what we have just seen and heard as we wait for the Liberty Island Ferry to arrive at the dock.
- Information provided by the Ellis Island Immigration Museum