When people today refer to Ellis Island, they generally invoke its legacy in the national saga of immigration to America, standing with the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor as a beacon of opportunity for the world’s dispossessed. However, the building of a federal facility at the site of an old naval arsenal on Ellis Island in 1892 grew out of the newly established federal authority to regulate and restrict immigration.
Before federal processing was institutionalized at Ellis Island, states had the right to set the criteria for the suitability of immigrants, with an interest in recruiting labor and excluding potential wards of the state. Two-thirds of the migrants to the United States between 1786 and 1892 came through New York City, and after 1855 immigration processing, including medical exams, customs inspection, and name registration, took place at Castle Garden in lower Manhattan, where social reformers set up voluntary services to help immigrants find work and housing. Similar immigration stations were located in Boston, Baltimore, and Galveston.
With the emergence of a national economy and a national transportation system in the years following the Civil War (1861–1865), immigration fell increasingly under federal scrutiny, and the federal government passed laws to restrict the entry of immigrants thought to be undesirable. Early efforts restricted the entry of prostitutes, convicts, incapacitated people, and contract labor. The most important exception to general practices of open immigration was Chinese exclusion, codified in federal law as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, establishing the prerogative of the federal government to raise restrictive barriers against specific national groups and to mark them as permanently foreign, aliens without rights. Between 1880 and 1900, the pace of immigration to the United States increased dramatically, with nine million immigrants arriving in these years. Laborers from England, Ireland, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries were now joined by new arrivals from Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Canada, Greece, Syria, the West Indies, Mexico, and Japan. Nativist concerns about the new immigrants led to escalating pressures for a federal immigration policy.
The new federal immigration station that opened in 1892 on Ellis Island was a key component of the new federal immigration policy, which set standards for minimum health and competency, regulated the process of inspection and deportation for overseas immigration, and delegated enforcement to a superintendent of immigration and an Office of Immigration, located within the Department of the Treasury, later Commerce, and then Labor, until 1940, when the Immigration Service was transferred to the Department of Justice. Ellis Island was the entry point for twelve million people, about three-fourths of the migrants who entered the United States between 1892 and 1924. On its busiest day, April 17, 1907, Ellis Island officials processed 11,747 immigrants. Other federal immigrant processing stations were established at Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.
Many European immigrant accounts of their experience at Ellis Island emphasized the hopefulness of arrival and the often confusing and sometimes frightening aspects of inspection. Steerage passengers entering New York Harbor boarded ferries for Ellis Island (American-born passengers and those travelling first and second class were examined on board ship). After being tagged with their number from the ship’s official listing, immigrants walked into the baggage room where they were encouraged to check their belongings. Then they moved up the steps to the second-floor registry room in the Great Hall, where they were evaluated by medical inspectors looking for contagious diseases and physical disabilities, and by legal inspectors checking that names, birthplaces, ages, and occupations matched ship registries and ascertaining that immigrants were not likely to become wards of the state. Stories from prior travelers helped immigrants rehearse answers for the inspectors, and provided strategies for passing through successfully, for example, discretely passing the same twenty-five dollars from immigrant to immigrant to preempt the requirement for proving self-support. A literacy test for immigrants over fourteen was administered after 1917.
The shipping lines had to bear the cost of returning “excluded aliens” to their point of departure. Most newcomers, 80 percent or more, passed through the process successfully; detention for the remaining 20 percent, for legal or medical reasons, lasted in most cases less than two weeks. Although most of the patients held in medical detention recovered and were able to complete the immigration process, between 1900 and 1954, over 3,500 people, including 1,400 children, died on Ellis Island. Historians have calculated that despite a growing number of excludable categories, only about 2 percent of Ellis Island migrants failed to gain entry. In comparison, Chinese immigrants trying to gain entry through Angel Island by making use of the very few exceptions provided by the Chinese exclusion laws faced much more rigorous interrogation and isolation, and much lengthier detentions.
Ellis Island’s functions changed dramatically with the passage of immigration restriction in the 1920s, ending the era of open European immigration. Combined pressures for exclusion proposed by white Anglo-Saxon Protestant restrictionist groups, reinforced by theories of scientific racism spurred by World War I (1914–1918) rhetoric of “100 percent Americanism,” the Red Scare’s linking of foreigners with radicalism, and the labor movement’s fears of rising unemployment, resulted in the passage of the Quota Act in 1921 and the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924. The Quota Act limited the total number of immigrants who could enter the United States and required that immigrants bring passports. The Johnson-Reed Act did not limit immigration from the Western Hemisphere, but it reduced the total number of entering immigrants, and most significantly, established national-origins quotas to favor northern and western European immigrants, who received 82 percent of the annual total quota allotted. The Johnson-Reed Act also expanded the category of illegal aliens, reaffirming the principle of Chinese exclusion and barring Japanese and other immigrants from the “Asiatic Zone,” defined in 1917 as stretching from Afghanistan to the Pacific, on the legal grounds of their exclusion from citizenship.
By the 1920s, Ellis Island officials were processing far fewer arrivals and were no longer providing medical or mental exams or housing immigrants who were ill, since the passport and visa requirements relocated many aspects of verification and inspection from Ellis Island back to the country of origin. During the 1930s, nearly as many people left as entered the United States, and Ellis Island officials processed some immigrants returning to Europe. During World War I, Ellis Island became a temporary detention center for “enemy aliens,” and in 1919 radicals rounded up by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (1872–1936) and housed incommunicado prior to deportation included the Russian anarchist activists Emma Goldman (1869–1940) and Alexander Berkman (1870–1936). Ellis Island was increasingly used for detention and deportation of “aliens.” By the 1930s, the people detained on the island were undocumented immigrants without passports or visas, foreign-born criminals awaiting deportation, and sick merchant mariners receiving treatment at the hospital.
During World War II (1939–1945), “enemy aliens” were again held on the island. After 1950, immigrants suspected of being communists were denied entry or detained awaiting deportation, including the West Indian Marxist writer C. L. R. James (1901–1989) in 1952. Despite the needs of the many refugees created during World War II, the restrictive immigration laws kept the numbers of European immigrants very small. Ellis Island was finally abandoned by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1954 and classified as surplus property. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s (1890–1969) General Services Administration tried unsuccessfully to sell Ellis Island and its buildings to the highest bidder in 1956. President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973), who traveled to the Statue of Liberty to sign immigration reform in 1965, granted landmark status to Ellis Island as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument within the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. New interest in historic preservation and in European-heritage ethnicity generated popular and public support for the restoration and reopening of Ellis Island as an immigration museum in 1990.
SEE ALSO Immigrants, European; Immigrants, New York City
Chermayeff, Ivan, Fred Wasserman, and Mary J. Shapiro. 1991. Ellis Island: An Illustrated History of the Immigrant Experience. New York: Macmillan.
Moreno, Barry. Encyclopedia of Ellis Island. 2004. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Ngai, Mai M. 2004. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Smith, Judith E. 1992. Celebrating Immigration History at Ellis Island. American Quarterly 44: 82–100.
Yans-McLaughlin, Virginia, and Marjorie Lightman. 1997. Ellis Island and the Peopling of America: The Official Guide. New York: New Press.
Judith E. Smith
From 1892 to 1954, Ellis Island was the major U.S. point of entry for immigrants coming to America across the Atlantic Ocean. Ellis Island is located near the shores of New York and New Jersey . A man named Samuel Ellis owned the island in the late eighteenth century, and the U.S. federal government bought it from him in 1808 for $10,000. The U.S. Army used the island from 1812 to 1814 and the U.S. Navy was there in 1876. In 1890, the House Committee on Immigration chose Ellis Island to be the site for an immigrant screening station. The old location at Castle Garden in lower Manhattan, New York, had become too small to handle the growing number of arriving immigrants.
The government enlarged Ellis Island from just over 3 acres (1 hectare) to 14 acres (6 hectares) and erected an immigration depot and several support buildings. The first immigrants passed through Ellis Island on January 1, 1892. The main depot was a two-story structure built of pine, with a blue slate roof.
Once immigrants disembarked from their ship, they filed into the registry room, an impressive room that measured 200 feet (61 meters) by 100 feet (30 meters) and had a 56-foot-high (17-meter) ceiling. The room itself was divided into twelve narrow aisles separated by iron bars. Doctors examined new arrivals at the front of the room. These doctors, in addition to other immigration officials, complained about the leaky roof and other structural problems.
Inspectors determined that the building would probably last less than five years. The roof was in danger of collapsing under heavy snowfall or high winds. The doors were poorly hung and sometimes fell off their hinges. Architects estimated repairs at $150,000.
Despite the evaluations of inspectors and architects, nothing was done about the problems. In 1895, architect John J. Clark was sent to inspect the building. Because the building was used to process immigrants and nothing more, Ellis Island officials were hesitant to invest more money into it. As a result, Clark reported that the roof did not need repair, angering Ellis Island employees who knew it was leaky. In addition to the architectural flaws, the building was too small for processing the still growing number of arriving immigrants. The inspection process was also slow, and there was nowhere for immigrants to live while
they waited to be processed. In 1897, the government decided to add a 250-bed dormitory to the main building.
Before the dorm could be built, a fire burned most of the buildings to the ground. There were two hundred immigrants on the island at the time of the fire, but no one was hurt. Three years later, on December 17, 1900, a new reception hall was completed. In the new building, sixty-five hundred immigrants could complete the inspection process in nine hours. This efficiency was possible because the new reception hall was modeled after the train stations of the time, which handled thousands of people and tons of cargo every day.
Ellis Island was expanded to 17 acres (7 hectares) in 1898, and a second island was added by using the dirt and rock removed during nearby subway construction. A third island was added and completed by 1906. Dormitories, hospitals, kitchens, a baggage station, a bathhouse, an electrical plant, and personnel to staff the depot raised the cost of renovations to a half million dollars. By 1954, however, stricter immigration laws had decreased the number of immigrants processing through the New York depot, so the Immigration Services shut down Ellis Island, and activity resumed at the Manhattan immigration depot.
In 1885, France gave the Statue of Liberty to America. The statue was shipped in 350 pieces in 214 crates and arrived in the United States in June 1885; construction was completed in October of the following year. Nicknamed Lady Liberty, the statue was placed on Bedloe's Island, next to Ellis Island, where it became the symbol of freedom and hope for millions of immigrants. Bedloe's Island was renamed Liberty Island in 1956.
Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus (1849–1887) wrote the sonnet “The New Colossus” in 1883. It is engraved on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The poem contains the famous line, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Ellis Island is situated in the New York Harbor, off the southern tip of Manhattan. It was named for Samuel Ellis (n.d.), a merchant and farmer who owned the island during the late 1700s. New York acquired the land and, in 1808, sold it to the federal government. The site served as a fort and later, as an arsenal. By the end of the century record numbers of immigrants prompted the federal government to establish a bureau to process the new arrivals, the vast majority of whom entered the country at its largest port, New York City. On January 1, 1892, the Federal Immigration Station opened on Ellis Island—in the shadows of the Statue of Liberty (dedicated 1886 on nearby Bedloe Island). The Ellis Island facility, which by 1901 consisted of thirty-five buildings, was the country's chief immigration station. Its heaviest use was in processing the influx of immigrants who arrived between 1892 and 1924. The majority of new arrivals were European, but immigrants also came from the West Indies, Asia, and the Middle East. More men than women arrived at the immigration depot.
New arrivals (mostly third-class passengers; firstand second-class passengers were processed aboard their ships) were ferried from their transatlantic vessels to Ellis Island, where they disembarked and were guided into registration areas in the Great Hall and questioned by government officials who determined their eligibility to land. Upon completing the registration process newcomers were ushered into rooms where physicians examined them. The process, extremely business-like to the point of being dehumanizing, typically took between three to five hours. Ninety-eight percent of those arriving at Ellis Island were allowed into the country; two percent were turned back for medical reasons (as U.S. health officials tried to keep out infectious diseases) or for reasons of insanity or criminal record. Other facilities at the Ellis Island Immigration Station included showers, restaurants, railroad ticket offices, a laundry, and a hospital. At its peak the Ellis Island station processed some five thousand immigrants and non-immigrating aliens (visitors) daily.
The facility was closed on November 29, 1954— immigration quotas had drastically reduced the number of incoming people, eliminating the need for the mass processing center. On May 11, 1965, Ellis Island was designated a national historic site. During the 1980s it was extensively restored. More than twelve million people first entered the United States through Ellis Island; their descendants account for an estimated 40 percent of the nation's current population.
See also: Immigration
ELLIS ISLAND. From 1892 to 1954, Ellis Island was a gateway for more than 12 million immigrants seeking access to the United States' way of life. Because of its historical significance and proximity to the statue, the site was declared part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965, but the land and its buildings remained in decay and disrepair. After a $1 million cleanup grant by the federal government for the bicentennial in 1976, $165 million was raised in private donations to restore the main building, including the huge Great Hall, which was opened as a museum for visitors in 1990.
The federal government established its first immigration center at the site in 1890, using ballast from incoming ships as landfill to double the island in size. In
1892, Annie Moore from Ireland, age 15, was the first immigrant recorded to come through Ellis Island proper (for a few years before this, immigrants were processed at Castle Garden, still considered part of the Ellis Island experience today). In 1897, the original wooden buildings burned to the ground. While some records were lost, none of the ship manifests were lost as they were stored elsewhere. The main building that exists today was opened in 1900, and 389,000 immigrants were processed through it in the first year alone. The record number in one day occurred in 1907, with 11,747. By 1917, Congress required all immigrants over age 16 be literate, and quotas began a few years later.
An estimated forty percent, or over 100 million Americans, can trace their ancestry through at least one man, woman, or child who entered the country through Ellis Island. During the peak years, thousands of immigrants arrived each day. Each immigrant was checked for diseases, disabilities, and legal problems, and each name was recorded. In the confusion and with so many languages entering the country, many of the clerks wrote names based on English phonetic spellings or quick approximations, and many of these names have stayed with families to this day. People in steerage class on the crossing steam-ships were asked to board ferries that brought them to the Ellis Island facilities. There, they stood for hours in long lines reaching up the long stairs to the Great Hall, complete with children and all the belongings they had brought with them, awaiting inspection and passage through Ellis Island to the trains or boats that would take them to New York City or upstate New York, or on to other areas of the country. About two percent, or 250,000, did not pass the inspections and were turned around to go back to their countries of origin.
The open-door policy of immigration did not always exist at Ellis Island. In the 1920s, quotas were enacted; later, immigration processing was moved overseas. During World War II, the facility was used to house enemy aliens. Finally, the entryway was closed in 1954 and offered for sale as surplus government property, until the National Park Service took it over during the Johnson administration in 1965.
Today, thousands of visitors include a trip to Ellis Island with their visit to the Statue of Liberty. Ferries bring them to the hallowed island, much as they did years ago with their ancestors. A passenger database helps them locate their ancestors' records.