|Ellis Island around the turn of the 20th Century.
A guy who should have been a joke became the leading contender for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2016. He got elected largely on his promise to build a high tech version of the Great Wall of China across our Southern boarders at a cost of billions of dollars, to round up and deport 11 million so called illegal aliens, and even to revoke the citizenship of millions born in the U.S. to immigrant parents. In addition to casting Latino immigrants as criminals and rapists, he targeted Muslims and African immigrants. His policies resulted in the infamous separation of children from their families and a vast network of internment facilities for immigrants and asylum seekers. The translation of all of this is that America would be made White again. He tapped into a deep reservoir of nativism and xenophobia that has surfaced repeatedly in American history in various ugly guises.
Take, for instance, the end of the
great symbol of immigration and the doorway to
millions. Many of the decedents of the wretched
refuse who entered that doorway and who were despised, abused, and exploited
now believe that they are White Real Americans and cheer on the billionaire
who holds them in as much contempt as the Mexicans he
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 outcropping 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 hordes 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 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 quotas 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.
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.