— How the organized arrival of millions of immigrants speaks to America’s past, present, and future.
During the American Revolution, colonists wanted more immigrants to help develop North America. Immigration was encouraged by federal and state governments for building out railroads and canals, and laborers were needed for many skills. Most of these laborers were easily found in Germany and Ireland at the time. Between 1783 and 1820, nearly 250,000 immigrants came to America. But the greatest influx of people were yet to come.
Prior to 1890, the individual states (rather than the Federal Government) regulated the immigration process into the U.S. Castle Garden in the Battery, known today as Castle Clinton, served as the New York State immigration station from 1855 to 1890, and saw approximately eight million immigrants from northern and western Europe pass through its doors.
The first Ellis Island came into operation in 1892, burned to the ground in 1897, and was rebuilt as a fireproof structure and re-opened in 1900. No lives were lost, but years of federal and state immigration records dating back to 1855 were destroyed.
By the early 1900s, the U.S. thought it had seen the immigration “peak” pass. But actually, immigration was on the rise during the years of 1900-1915. During 1907 alone, over 1.25 million immigrants arrived at Ellis Island. This wave catapulted the building of more facilities on the island to include dormitories, hospitals, and kitchens through 1915. Ellis Island saw over 12 million immigrants pass through its Great Hall before its closing in 1954 as the last and largest immigration station in the U.S.
A Long Road to the Land of Liberty
Enduring rough seas and confined, unsanitary conditions on ships bound for the Americas, droves of immigrants arrived in the harbors of New York. Tired, hungry, and sometimes sick, they were tossed about in the steerage part of the ship for over two weeks. Driven by sheer fortitude, determination, and vision, they arrived in New York Harbor—liberty finally coming into view.
Ellis Island was known as both the Island of Hope and the Island of Tears. Although over 17 million people arrived, only 12 million were accepted.
To support the immigration process of millions of people, procedures were set in place to speed the progress. Still, it took at least three to five (or more) hours inside the Great Hall to complete the inspection process of each individual. Nearly 500 staff made up the interpreters, inspectors, doctors, nurses, social workers, and clerks within the medical facilities, a dining hall, and even a hospital for surgeries. It was a highly organized and well-oiled machine—able to process thousands of immigrants per year.
The “six-second” physical exam confirmed the health status of each person with a chalk mark put onto the clothing, indicating whether persons were healthy enough to be released into the streets. Because of many language barriers, some surnames were changed to their English pronunciation for paperwork completion.
Discrepancies in paperwork, legal issues, criminal history, and certain levels of health issues (diseases/quarantines) could delay arrivals, separate families, and deny entry altogether. Hence the names Island of Tears (or “staircase of separation”) for those left behind or incarcerated. Ultimately, the staircase pulled apart many families and children for one reason or the other—children over 12 were sent back on their own in the care of the ship captain.
Those that could afford first-class and second-class steerage tickets usually arrived at the docks on the Hudson or East River piers, showed proper paperwork, disembarked and passed through Customs, and were free to enter the U.S.—the rationale being, those that could afford to pay their way would prove to be healthy and less of a burden on the state, and would not end up institutionalized or a danger to society. First-class were only sent to Ellis Island if they were sick or had legal issues.
The steerage and third-class passengers, however, were transported from the pier by ferry or barge to Ellis Island, where the full medical and legal processing occurred.
While most immigrants entered the U.S. through New York Harbor, the country also received immigrants from major ports such as Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Savannah, Miami, and New Orleans. San Francisco, the Ellis Island of the West—also known as Angel Island—was the main port of the West Coast. Angel Island immigration station was built to handle mainly the Asian immigrants, and also used as a detention facility. The first Chinese entered America (California) in 1848, and within a few years, thousands more arrived. They were quickly outnumbered by the Japanese in 1915.
An Age of Restrictions and Exclusions
History reveals that as far back as 1875, the U.S. has implemented many variations on qualitative restrictions to thwart groups of immigrants from particular regions of Europe—including barring illiteracy (literacy testing), convicts, prostitutes, mental defectives, and “socially inadequate qualities.”
A period of economic downturn in the 1920s and ‘30s resulted in serious unemployment problems and politically motivated outcries against immigrants, who would work for low wages, especially in the West. The Chinese Exclusion Act (not repealed until 1943) was used to block Chinese immigration under the 1921 Temporary Quota Act. The immigration quota system was later abolished by the Immigration Act of 1965, bringing all nationalities onto the same footing.
The onset of World War I also commenced a slowdown of arrivals; in fact, it stopped transatlantic migration. Because of the War, suspected enemy aliens throughout the U.S. were brought to Ellis Island to be held in custody. Between 1918 and 1919, both the Navy and Army took over the Island for the duration of the war. In 1920, Ellis Island reopened as an immigration station, and another 225,000 immigrants were processed that year.
Engraved in History
The official closing of Ellis Island as an immigration processing station in 1954 left behind a museum filled with familial stories of individual heritage. Visitors can experience the Wall of Honor—which includes more than 700,000 names memorialized on stainless steel panels, and is open to all entries, all ethnicities, all years of arrival, all points of entry, and modes of travel.
After the closing of the Island, immigration was handled (as it is today) through the U.S. embassies, or consulates throughout 80 countries in the world. Travel visas to enter the U.S. are given on the basis of country of origin, and purpose for travel or work.
According to the Washington D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, there were over 43 million immigrants in the U.S. in 2015. The Department of Homeland Security reports that approximately 1,000,000 foreigners enter the U.S. annually, and approximately 11 million illegal immigrants currently reside in the U.S. A wealth of information can be found here.
America seems likely to remain a destination for immigrants. With history as their guide, most of today’s immigrants will be an integral part of a revised American community. But past success does not guarantee that history will repeat itself. As the history of immigration, and the modern debate surrounding it, evolves with the times, one thing can’t be denied: without immigrants, this country wouldn’t be what it is today. And thus, the question looms: how will immigration determine and define what America will become moving forward?
— Diane is a freelance writer and resident of Jefferson County.