Processing Immigrant Arrivals at Ellis Island

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Processing Immigrant Arrivals at Ellis Island


By: Anonymous

Date: 1920

Source: AP/Wide World Photos.

About the Author: The Associated Press (AP) is a worldwide news agency based in New York.


The official United States immigration facilities located on Ellis Island received more than 12 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954. Ellis Island lies near the Statue of Liberty in the New York Harbor, near the mouth of the Hudson River. Ellis Island was used to register immigrants, and also to screen out those who had contagious diseases or legal problems that would be a burden to society. Inspection at Ellis Island was primarily for the poorer immigrants arriving as third-class passengers aboard steamships, the most common mode of arrival during this time period. Passengers in first and second-class were briefly screened on board the ships, and only had to stop through Ellis Island if they had obvious problems with their health or paperwork.

Medical exams and legal inspections took place in a large room on Ellis Island called the Great Hall. Immigrants reported the Great Hall to be a vociferous place, with the sounds of many different languages echoing throughout the Hall's high ceilings. The arrivals were herded through metal guardrails, lining up alphabetically and according to nationality. It was in the Great Hall where immigrants would learn if they were free to enter the United States, or whether they would have to stay on Ellis Island for further inspection. Approximately one to two percent of arrivals were told they had to return to their country of origin. For immigrants whose documents were in order, the check-in process would last between two and five hours. Doctors from the United States Public Health Service looked quickly over the arrivals for obvious medical problems, including anemia and goiter. Each arrival was required to fill out a questionnaire while still on board the ship, which would then be reviewed by legal inspectors with the Bureau of Immigration.

The Federal Government opened the Ellis Island facility as a response to the large influx of immigrants that overwhelmed the New York State immigration center at Castle Garden in the 1880s. Originally the Ellis Island structures were built of pinewood, but five years after opening a fire completely destroyed the buildings along with millions of immigration records dating back to 1855. The facility was promptly rebuilt under the condition that all buildings be fireproof. Due to unexpected increases in immigrants between 1900 and 1915, masons and carpenters struggled to keep up with the need for larger hospital buildings, dormitories, contagious disease wards, and kitchens.



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As immigrants flooded into the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was belief among some politicians that immigration should be restricted. Such legislation came in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act, and then the first Immigration Act that forbade the entrance of criminals into the United States. Later, the Alien Contract Labor Laws restricted the entrance of immigrants who had arranged labor contracts prior to their arrival. The government also enacted a requirement that immigrants must pass a literacy test before entering the United States. Despite these first laws, the flow of immigrants did not start to decrease until the passage of the Quota Laws in 1921, and the National Origins Act of 1924. These laws attempted to reduce the large number of immigrants from countries such as Poland and Italy, in eastern and southern Europe, as they were considered inferior to those who came from the more traditional immigrant countries in western and northern Europe.

As the United States began opening embassies throughout the world in the 1920s, the need for Ellis Island faded. Embassies allowed would-be immigrants to apply for U.S. visas and undergo medical exams in their own countries. After 1924, people stopping through Ellis Island were only immigrants whose paperwork had problems, as well as people displaced by war and other events. Before being closed, Ellis Island was used during World War II for detaining merchant seamen from enemy countries. President Lyndon Johnson made Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965. The facilities later underwent restoration, and were opened to the public as a museum in 1990.

The agency responsible for determining the legal status of immigrants at Ellis Island, the United States Public Health Service and the Bureau of Immigration, later became the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). As part of the United States Department of Homeland Security, the ENS was re-structured in 2003, creating the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Bureau of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.



Brownstone, David M., Irene M. Franck, and Douglass Brownstone. Island of Hope, Island of Tears. New York: Metro Books, 2003.

Moreno, Barry. Ellis Island. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2003.

Wilkes, Stephen. Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.


"Cabin Passengers to Be Inspected Too." New York Times (November 1, 1905): 6.

"Crowding Ellis Island." New York Times (April 13, 1902): 3.

Web sites

United States Homeland Security. "U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services." June 23, 2006 〈〉 (accessed June 26, 2006).

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Processing Immigrant Arrivals at Ellis Island

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