Ellis Island: the golden door


Ellis Island: The Golden Door

The immigrant first comes under the official control of the United States government when he arrives at the port of destination. There are a number of seaports on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts designated by the Bureau of ports as entry for immigrants. Entry at any other ports is illegal. The facilities for the inspection and care of immigrants differ in extent in the different ports with the demands placed upon them, but the general line of procedure is the same in all. As New York has the most elaborate and complete immigrant station in the country and receives three quarters or more of all the immigrants, it may be taken as typical of the fullest development of our inspection system.

A ship arriving in New York is first subject to examination by the quarantine officials. Then the immigrants are turned over to the officers of the Immigration Bureau. All aliens entering a port of the United States are subject to the immigration law, and have to submit to inspection. First or second class passage does not, contrary to a common impression, secure immunity. Cabin passengers are given a preliminary inspection by the officials on board the vessel, and if they are plainly admissible, they are allowed to land without further formality. If there is any question as to their eligibility, they are taken to Ellis Island, and subjected to a closer examination. While there, they have to put up with the same accommodations as are accorded to steerage passengers. During three months of the spring of 1910 twenty-five hundred cabin passengers were thus taken over to Ellis Island, and the commissioner in charge at that port was led to recommend that better facilities be provided for this class of immigrants. This recommendation was repeated in 1912.

The steerage passengers are loaded on to barges, rented by the steamship companies, and transferred to the immigrant station. This is located on Ellis Island, a group of small islands in the harbor, not far from the Statue of Liberty. It consists of two main parts, on one of which is located the main building, containing offices, sleeping rooms, restaurant, inspection rooms, ticket offices, etc.; on the other are the hospitals, etc. This temporary disembarkment does not constitute a legal landing; the immigrants are still nominally on shipboard, and the transportation companies are responsible for their support until they are legally landed.

After landing on the Island, the immigrants pass through a detailed process of examination, during which all the facts required by the statutes are ascertained and recorded, as far as possible. This examination consists of three main parts. The first is the medical examination made by officers of the United States Public Health and Marine Hospital Service. These inspect the immigrants for all physical weaknesses or diseases which make them liable to exclusion. The next stage is the examination by an inspector who asks the long list of questions required by the law, in order to determine which alien is, for any nonphysical reason, inadmissible. If the immigrant appears to be “clearly and beyond a doubt” entitled to admission, he passes on to the discharging quarters, where is he turned over to the agents of the appropriate transportation company, or to a “missionary,” or is set free to take his way to the city by the ferry.

If any alien is not clearly entitled to admission, he must appear before a board of special inquiry, which goes into his case more deliberately and thoroughly, in order to determine whether he is legally admissible. Appeal from the decision of these boards, in cases provided for by the statues, may be made either by the alien or by a dissenting member of the board. Such appeal goes through the Commissioner and the Commissioner General of Immigration to the Secretary of Commerce and Labor, whose decision is final.

Many aliens must of necessity be detained on the Island, either during investigation, or, in case they are excluded, while awaiting their return to the country from which they came. The feeding of these aliens, along with other services, is intrusted to “privilege holders,” selected carefully by government authority.

The volume of business transacted on Ellis Island each year is immense. There are in all about six hundred and ten officials, including ninety-five medical officers and hospital attendants, engaged in administering the law at this station. The force of interpreters is probably the largest in the world, gathered under a single roof. At other immigrant stations the course of procedure follows the same general lines, though the amount of business is very much less.

Henry Pratt Fairchild, Immigration: A World Movement and its American Significance.
New York: The Macmillan company, 1913


+++++ Branching out +++++

• Watch this award winning documentary about Ellis island and the history of immigration to the United States:


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