Ellis Island: The Golden Door

Introduction

[Physical examination of female immigrants at Ellis Island, New York City]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.

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

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades K-4:

Topic 3: The History of the United States: Democratic Principles and Values and the Peoples from Many Cultures Who Contributed to Its Cultural, Economic and Political Heritage 

Standard 4: How Democratic Values Came to Be, and How They Have Been Exemplified by People, Events, and Symbols 

Standard 4E: The student understands national symbols through which American values and principles are expressed.

 K-4: Explain why important buildings, statues, and monuments are associated with state and national history, such as the White House, Lincoln Memorial, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Angel Island, Mt. Rushmore, and veterans memorials. [Obtain historical data]

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)

STANDARD 2: Massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity. 

Standard 2C: The student understands how new cultural movements at different social levels affected American life.

9-12: Analyze how the rise of public education and voluntary organizations promoted national unity and American values in an era of unprecedented immigration and socioeconomic change. [Examine the influence of ideas] 

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, [New York, N.Y., immigrants' landing, Ellis Island].
    DATE CREATED: [between 1910 and 1920]
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Order Photographic Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTBuilding the Digital Collection
    SOURCETouring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

  2. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Inspection room, Ellis Island, New York
    DATE CREATED: [between 1910 and 1920]
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Order Photographic Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTBuilding the Digital Collection
    SOURCETouring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

  3. DESCRIPTION: Video, Emigrants [i.e. immigrants] landing at Ellis Island
    DATE CREATED: United States : Thomas A. Edison, Inc., 1903
    SUMMARY from American Memory: Depicts scenes at the Immigration Depot and a nearby dock on Ellis Island. Appears to show, first, a group of immigrants lined up to board a vessel leaving the island, then another group arriving at the island and being directed off of the dock and into the Depot by a uniformed official.
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Order Copies of Films
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEThe Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1897-1906
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division Washington, D.C.

  4. DESCRIPTION: Video, Emigrants [i.e. immigrants] landing at Ellis Island
    DATE CREATED: United States : Thomas A. Edison, Inc., 1903
    SUMMARY from American Memory: The film opens with a view of the steam ferryboat "William Myers," laden with passengers, approaching a dock at the Ellis Island Immigration Station. The vessel is docked, the gangway is placed, and the immigrant passengers are seen coming up the gangway and onto the dock, where they cross in front of the camera.
    From a contemporary Edison film company catalog: EMIGRANTS LANDING AT ELLIS ISLAND. Shows a large open barge loaded with people of every nationality, who have just arrived from Europe, disembarking at Ellis Island, N.Y. A most interesting and typical scene. Code word Utriele [code for telegraphic orders]. Length 140 feet. Class B. $16.80.
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Order Copies of Films
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEThe Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1897-1906
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division Washington, D.C.

  5. DESCRIPTION: Interview, "My folks came over from Italy."
    DATE CREATED: August 11, 1994
    SUMMARY from American Memory: Interview with Angelo Basileo at his home in Haledon, New Jersey.
    Summary of audio segment: Angelo Basileo was born in Paterson. His folks came over from Italy in the 1890s and he was born in 1909, he is 85. He currently lives in New Haledon, NJ. He thinks they got married in U.S. They came via steerage and went through Ellis Island. Early family members sponsored other family members. His mother's brother came right to Paterson and he sponsored the rest of the family coming over. They settled in Paterson, and his mother's brother became a silk worker. His father used to work in a shoe factory in Italy. Father in shoe factory, silk mill, over the years his father went into silk and learned weaving too. Over the years he quit silk mill and opened his own shoe repair shop. They were never millionaires, always worked for a living. His mother never worked.
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to Order Audio Reproductions
    COPYRIGHTCopyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCEWorking in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting
    REPOSITORY: Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

  6. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, U.S. inspectors examining eyes of immigrants, Ellis Island, New York Harbor
    DATE CREATED: New York : Underwood & Underwood, c1913.
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

  7. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Landing at Ellis Island
    DATE CREATED: [1902]
    SUMMARY from the Library of Congress: Emigrants coming up the board-walk from the barge, which has taken them off the steamship company's docks, and transported them to Ellis Island. The big building in the background is the new hospital just opened. The ferry-boat seen in the middle of the picture, runs from New York to Ellis Island.
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

  8. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Awaiting examination, Ellis Island
    DATE CREATED: [between ca. 1907 and 1921]
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

  9. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Immigrants just arrived from Foreign Countries--Immigrant Building, Ellis Island, New York Harbor
    DATE CREATED: New York : Underwood & Underwood, c1904.
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

  10. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Final discharge from Ellis Island
    DATE CREATED: 1902
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 

  11. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, [Physical examination of female immigrants at Ellis Island, New York City]
    DATE CREATED: c. 1911
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.  

  12. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Held at Ellis Island--undesirable emigrants to be taken back by steamship company that brought them
    DATE CREATED: c. 1902
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.  

  13. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Detention pen--on roof of main building, Ellis Island, where emigrants held for deportation may go in fine weather
    DATE CREATED: [1902]
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.  

  14. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Immigrants at Ellis Island
    DATE CREATED: [between 1907 and 1917]
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.  

  15. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Doctor's examination - stopping an emigrant suspected of defective eyesight. He will be detained for further examination, to ascertain if this defect would prevent him from earning a living
    DATE CREATED: [1902]
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.  

  16. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Ellis Island
    DATE CREATED: [n. d.]
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.  

  17. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Ellis Island
    DATE CREATED: [n. d.]
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.  

  18. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Ellis Island, N.Y. - one of the "1000 marriageable girls" on the "Baltic"
    DATE CREATED: [1907]
    REPRODUCTIONSHow to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.  

See: Database of copied manifests for Ellis Island and the Port of New York between 1892 and 1924 maintained by the American Family Immigration Center.

See also: 

Additional Media Resources

Ellis Island. Exhibit from the History Channel

Additional Instructional Resources

Interactive Tour of Ellis Island

Ellis Island Unit

"Gateway to Dreams": An Ellis Island/Immigration WebQuest for Upper Elementary Grades

Associated Heritage and Preservation Organizations

Elllis Island National Monument
New York, NY 10004

Statue of Liberty National Monument
Liberty Island
New York, NY 10004

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Credits

Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Nancy Bramucci.

 

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