Note—This entry first appeared on this date in 2010. Earlier generations of xenophobes and Nativists slowly choked the wave of immigration that once flowed through Ellis Island to keep “real Americans” from being swamped by a rabble of people from unfamiliar lands speaking odd languages, most of them Catholic or worse Jewish. Some were steeped in European radicalism. The clamp down bought a few decades of continues supremacy and authority for the descendants of earlier settlers of Northern and Western European Protestant stock.
But the current xenophobes who now wear the Republican Party as their cover and identity, had a nasty surprise—they are no longer a majority. In fact, minorities of various hues, language, and sexual predilection combined to swamp them in the election this fall and returned a Black man to the White House. Now all of those Wops, Slavs and the dregs of the Polish and Russian shtetls that never arrived were sorely missed. They could have been trained to think of themselves as White and been a bulwark against the Black, Brown, and Yellow hoards who turned out to be far more alien and frightening.
Ellis Island, the main port of entry into the United States for immigrants arriving from across the Atlantic Ocean for sixty-two years closed on November 12, 1954. Since 1898 over 12 million peopled had entered the country through the immigration processing center on the island. About 100 million people, one third of all Americans alive today either came through the Island themselves or have at least one ancestor who did.
The local native tribes called it Kioshk (Gull Island) for the birds that gathered on the stony 3.2 acre out cropping off the New Jersey coast of New York Harbor. The Dutch and English settlers named it after the abundant oysters that attracted the gulls. Nearby is even smaller Bedloe’s Island on which was built Ft. Wood, a harbor defense 11 point star fort completed in 1801. When that instillation was abandoned as obsolete after the Civil War, the fort’s thick stone walls supported the base and pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, which was unveiled there in 1886.
Ellis Island, which the Federal Government purchased in 1808, was also part of the harbor defense system, featuring a parapet with three circular levels of gun platforms named Fort Gibson. Like its neighbor, the fortification was abandoned after the Civil War.
By the time that big statue was erected next door, millions of emigrants had already poured through the harbor. At the time there was no Federal screening or regulation of immigration. If it was done at all, such screening was left to the states. For decades New York had funneled immigrants off the ships to Castle Garden in the Battery. From 1855 to 1890 an approximately eight million immigrants, mostly from Northern and Western Europe, passed through its doors.
The first great wave of European immigrants, especially the huge numbers of Catholic Irish had set off a wave of nativism that culminated in the Know Nothing Party. The continuing need for massive numbers of workers to for the huge construction projects—canals, railroads, turnpikes, harbor dredging—as well as in mining and the growing industrial sector, had made absorption of the growing numbers easier. And the Civil War both diverted the country’s attention from immigration issues and used plenty of off the boat immigrants as cannon fodder.
By the 1870’s, however, economic depression in Europe, famines, political instability, and a rising wave of anti-Semitism was bringing a new wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, especially Italy, Poland, and portions of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires which was resented by “Americans” and earlier immigrants alike. The Labor Movement, struggling to maintain craft unions and high wages in the skilled trades, and to establish any kind of unionism among the semi-skilled and unskilled laborers of the humming new factories, mills and mines, was fearful that a surplus of cheap labor would drive wages down and that “ignorant” immigrants would be used as scabs. The Protestant middle class was aghast at swarthy new hoards of Papists and worse, Jews.
Pressure was growing on the Federal government to step in and regulate immigration uniformly. The Federal government assumed responsibility in 1890. It immediately recognized that New York’s Castle Garden facility would be unable to handle the huge numbers that seemed to increase yearly. Work to convert abandoned Ellis Island to a receiving station began almost immediately.
On January 1, 1892 the Ellis Island receiving station opened under the auspices of the new Bureau of Emigration. Fifteen year old Anne Moore and her two brothers from Cork, Ireland, were the first to be processed. They would be far from the last.
The first reception center burned down within 5 years. In December 1900 the impressive main hall which still stands was opened and processed 2,251 immigrants on the first day. Over the years the facility was greatly expanded as was the island itself. From 1890 onward fill from unloaded ship ballast and from construction projects in the City, especially from the of the Subway system, was used to expand the island. Eventually it covered more than 27 total acres with the bulk of the land in two large sections on either side of a ferry slip connected by a narrow strip of land. Numerous buildings dotted both sides of the island.
Most people believe that all immigrants arriving by ship in New York passed through the island. That is not quite true. First and second class passengers were cursorily interviewed on board ship and generally passed directly through for landing in New York unless they showed signs of illness. It was presumed that those who could afford such passage had sufficient assets to prevent them from becoming “burdens on society.” But the vast majority of immigrants were booked third class and steerage. Steerage passengers were treated as virtual cargo, held in cramped conditions below deck and not allowed to mingle in any way with their betters. These were the millions that were funneled through Ellis Island’s screening process.
These passengers were transported by ferry from the docks to the island and entered the Great Hall to begin the process of evaluation. If all went smoothly, this could take a little as two hours. Most spent the better part of a day on the island. But if anything went amiss, or if medical inspection detected an illness, passengers could be detained for weeks. Besides medical screening, which typically looked out for infectious disease, blindness and other disabilities, chronic illness, infirmity, and insanity, immigrants were asked 29 questions including name, occupation, and the amount of money carried. About 2% were sent back for various causes including having a criminal background, illness, insanity, and a total lack of funds and skills which might lead them to become a burden. Children who arrived without a parent or guardian also were frequently rejected.
Upon approval immigrants were released to welcoming family, if they had any, or to the arms of labor agents prowling the docks. Many settled in New York, others were whisked away by rail to points all across the country, often dispatched to factories and mines by the labor agents. These agents frequently shook down the immigrants for cash in addition to getting paid by potential employers. Some were total frauds and immigrants found themselves trapped in towns far from the coast or supportive communities with no money and no job.
The peak year for Ellis Island was 1907, with 1,004,756 immigrants processed including an all time daily high on April 17, 1907, when 11,747 arrived.
A deep recession in America slowed immigration somewhat, and World War I disrupted immigration patterns. But the country braced for a huge new wave of immigrants and refugees after the war just as the great Red Scare was identifying immigrants as likely Communists and subversives.
In fact the War and the Red Scare combined to give the Island a new use as a detention facility and a debarkation point for deportation. During the war thousands of enemy aliens were detained there and during the Red Scare many more thousands rounded up in the infamous Palmer Raids were held there for deportation. While the Island was being used for these purposes the greatly reduced flow of regular immigrants were screened on board ship.
In 1920, Ellis Island reopened as an immigration receiving station and a greatly reduced 225,206 immigrants were processed that year.
The clamor to restrain immigration, especially from those pesky Southern and Eastern European areas—and by Asians on the West Coast—led to increasingly restrictive immigration laws. The 1921 Quota Law was refined by the 1924 National Origins Act. Together they sought to maintain the balance of “real Americans” and earlier immigrants of Western and Northern European extraction by imposing strict quota based on national origin that would allow new immigrants from any nation in proportion to their representation in the current American population and the total for all immigration was capped at a figure much lower than pre-war levels.
After 1924 potential immigrants were supposed to apply for and be screened by American embassies around the world. Those approved were given papers that would allow them to land directly in the country after clearing normal customs. From 1924 onward only a trickle of immigrants claiming refugee status were processed through the island. The bulk of the facilities continued to be used for detention of one sort or another.
During World War II the island again became a detention center for enemy aliens. More than 7,000—mostly Germans and Italians, but some Japanese and some from Axis allied or occupied countries—were held on the island. It also housed a large Coast Guard training facility.
In the post war years another Red Scare caused some suspected communists to be held there as well. In 1952 changes in the law dropped the number of detainees from a post-war peak of 1,500 to just 30. In fact the last were not released until 1954. The same year the last of a trickle of immigrants was also processed—Norwegian sailor Arne Peterssen. With the days of the trans-oceanic passenger ships drawing to a close and the arrival of more and more immigrants by air, the giant old facility was simply an expensive dinosaur when it was closed by the Eisenhower Administration the same year.
The facilities on the island were allowed to deteriorate. But in the 1960’s public interest in re-discovering ethnic roots began to pick up as the children and grandchildren of immigrants reached the middle class. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. The deteriorating buildings were opened to the public on a limited basis between 1976 and 1984 when a major restoration, the largest historic restoration in U.S. history, got under way. The $160 million dollar project was funded by donations made to the Statue of Liberty—Ellis Island Foundation in partnership with the National Park Service. The Main Building was reopened to the public on September 10, 1990 as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. The museum now receives almost 2 million visitors annually.