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Ellis Island Opens

January 1st, 1892. Brand new American doors opened to immigrants. Those that wanted to come to the United States will now go through federal immigration stations, possibly the most famous being New York harbor’s Ellis Island.

We were taught in school that immigrants would come excitedly into the harbor, passing the Statue of Liberty, which greeted them. Then, these immigrants would be welcomed into Ellis Island, where their papers would be processed before they could reach the solid ground of Manhattan.

However, the reality of Ellis Island was anything but welcoming. By 1896, Congress was creating a new list of reasons why immigrants could be excluded at the nation’s symbolic gates. The federal government built a new inspection station to enforce the new laws they made. Almost 80% of immigrants that came to America passed through the port of New York. Therefore, they built Ellis Island.

The symbolism of the gates of Ellis Island is essential. Each day, inspectors, doctors, and other government officials stood at the gate and examined those who wanted to enter the country. Human beings were looked over as if they were cattle. Then, doctors decided which immigrants could pass through and which would find the gates of America forever closed.

Ellis Island acted as a sieve. Government officials sifted through the immigrants every day to separate those. They deemed desirable from those they deemed undesirable. Essentially, America wanted to seem as if they were still traditionally welcoming to immigrants while being able to pick and choose who they actually let in.

The process that took place at Ellis Island was anything but a happy event. Although some would pass through its gates and come out on the other side feeling happy and welcomed, most did not. One immigrant, Edward Steiner, wrote, “… A hard, harsh fact, surrounded by the grinding machinery of the law, which cysts, pics, and chooses; admitting the fit and excluding the weak and helpless.”[1] Yet another immigrant once said that the process at Ellis Island was like “This ranging and guiding and hurrying and sifting was like nothing so much as the screening of coal in a great breaker tower.”[2]

All immigrants who walked through Ellis Island would be marched in a single file line toward a medical officer. These doctors went through thousands of people a day and had seconds to make an initial judgment. They would pay careful attention to the scalp, face, neck, hands, walk, and overall mental and physical condition of the person they were looking at. These doctors would also generally touch the people in front of them, feeling from muscular development, fever, or inspecting hands to see if they portrayed a more severe health concern. After 1905, all immigrants would pass a second doctor who performed a quick eye exam. If a doctor found any deficiency, they would mark the immigrant with a letter. For example, the letter ”L” stood for lameness. These chalk-marked immigrants, between 15 and 20% of all arrivals, would be set aside for further physical and mental testing.

Ellis Island is now a national landmark. Too many, it represents a welcoming station to America. A glistening beam of light that stands resolute with the Statue of Liberty at its side. However, the truth of Ellis Island is much more sinister and significantly more complex. The people that passed through its gates were not welcomed with open and loving arms. Instead, they were picked, prodded, and inspected. They were seen as little more than future industrial workers. They were not human beings. They were a means to an end.

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[1] Vincent Cannato, American Passage: The History of Ellis Island (Harper Collins, 2009).
[2] Stephen Graham, With Poor Immigrants To America (1914) (Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2008).


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