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what happened on ellis island?

Ellis Island New York

The year is 1911, it could be any morning of the week including Sunday. Frank Martocci, United States Immigration Inspector, approached the Barge Station at Battery Park, New York City to take the 9 a.m. Ellis Island ferry. Hundreds of people, friends and relatives of those detained or scheduled to arrive on Ellis Island that day, clamor to climb aboard. Emerging from the morning mist, the island floats quietly in the Hudson River. The S.S. Laconia from Naples, the S.S. Celtic from Queenstown, the S. S. Imperator from Hamburg, the S.S. Olympic from Southampton, the S.S. France from Le Havre, and the S.S. Lafayette from Jamaica--six huge gritty steamships hover at the edges of New York's harbor and piers. And five thousand alien immigrant passengers wait their turn to enter the United States.

The United States immigration officials, had already boarded each vessel. Each ship's bursar turned over the ship manifests, documents originally used to describe imported goods to the port master or customs official. Since 1893 federal law required the manifests to provide detailed information about a new kind of cargo which was proving enormously profitable--immigrants who filled the ships on their return trips from cargo deliveries abroad. The manifests would be turned over to the Ellis Island immigration inspectors, who would confirm their accuracy.

On this morning, as they did every morning, the United States immigration officials conducted their examinations of first- and second-class cabin passengers on board ship. Cabin-class citizens and eligible aliens in these two groups had already landed at the pier, free to go after customs declarations.

The steerage passengers, almost all immigrant aliens, along with any disqualified cabin class aliens made their customs declarations and boarded barges for Ellis Island. Three barges, rocking their loads of tired men, women, and children who had just endured one- and-a-half to three-week sea voyages in dirty, overcrowded quarters without privacy, decent food, or a place to bathe were already lined up at the Ellis Island slip. These immigrants would be the first of the day to undergo the legal and medical examinations required for admission to enter the United States. Immigration officers were tagging each passenger assigning them the numbers and letters from their manifest positions, a simple but efficient means to check them through the inspection process.

The passengers lined up under the main building's entrance canopy protected from the summer sun. Some dressed in all the clothes they owned at once--layers of petticoats, jackets, and coats-- so they'd have less to carry. One immigrant carried a great feather mattress, another, grape vine cuttings to transplant in America, still others carried fiddles, pots and hoes. Surveying the morning scene, Frank Martocci knew it was going to be a long day.

Arrival time at Ellis for Martocci and the rest of the morning inspection staff is 9:20. That day they wouldn't be leaving the island before 9:00 P. M. As Martocci entered the building a familiar smell of disinfectant, turpentine and kerosene greeted him; the charwomen and porters had already finished the first of their frequent daily swabbings of floors, benches and spittoons, beds, walls and showers, the procedure for avoiding contamination by the germs and vermin which many immigrants carried with them from steerage. Immigrants carried lice, and lice carried typhus. American public health officials knew that sanitation protocols guarded against a major epidemic of this and other diseases.

As Martocci climbed the stairs to the second floor, he passed the waiting medical inspection teams and entered the Great Hall or registry room. Martocci acted as a legal inspector. When requested, he would use his knowledge of Italian, Polish, German, and Spanish to act as interpreter for the special Boards of Inquiry set up to consider in detail the cases of immigrants detained by medical and legal examiners.

On a busy day like this one, some 3,000 to 5,000 people came through Ellis Island. Martocci would examine 400 to 500 of them. He took his place beneath a huge American flag at one of fourteen "line inspectors'" desks set up on a platform against the west wall of the registry room.

In the meantime, the arriving immigrants checked most of their heaviest baggage in the first-floor baggage room and prepared to mount the stairs to the Great Hall. A series of questions had already been put to them concerning their health and personal status. Recognizing that lusty pursuit of profits might lead the steam ship companies to encourage even inadmissable aliens to travel to the United States, Congress included provisions in the 1893 immigration law requiring shipping companies to conduct preliminary health and legal inspections at the port of embarkation or on board ship, and to pay the return trips of inadmissible passengers. The questions which the steam ship representatives replied to on the manifests increased in number as the categories of inadmissable persons increased. For example, in addition to the person's name, age, sex, race, marital status, occupation, nationality, final U.S. destination, mental and physical health, means of paying for passage, whether he was a criminal or public charge, or contract laborer were also included. Now, the immigrants would undergo another medical and legal examination, usually lasting from three to five minutes each if no problems existed. The job of the inspectors at Ellis Island was to see that the ship's manifest information agreed with what the immigrant stated to them or what they observed.

As the weary, excited immigrants made their way up the stairs a United States Public Health physician observed them in what came to be known as the "six-second exam;" he was looking for tell tale signs of a list of diseases which were grounds for deportation or short-term detention at the island's contagious disease hospital. Next, the new comers lined up in front of the "eye man," who used a buttonhook to turn eye lids up as he looked for trachoma and other contagious eye diseases, Trachoma, a highly contagious ailment, was, and remains, grounds for refusal of entry.

The number of physical ailments and conditions to be identified increased with the years to reach 50 by 1917. Most of the immigrants passed through the line easily, but the physicians placed chalk marks on others, a sign that they should report to the medical examination rooms for further scrutiny: an E for eye problems, an H for heart, L for lameness, SC for scalp, X for mental disease, and so on. Young children clung to their mothers, but the medical inspectors required those over two years to walk independently. Were they lame, deformed, mentally retarded? "How old are you?" an inspector asked of a young girl he suspected of being mentally deficient. "Here, let me hear you breathe," to a man seen puffing up the stairs. Was this immigrant attempting to hide tuberculosis, heart disease, or a lung pathology by pretending that his suitcase was the cause of his fatigue? The inspector's job was to investigate.

About 20% of entering immigrants were detained, but only half of them were detained for medical reasons. Some of those who were examined further for medical problems were approved and then released for the legal inspection. Others with common contagious diseases such as whooping cough or diphtheria would be held temporarily in the island's contagious disease facility and then released. Those not cleared after closer medical examination were deported within days unless they appealed their case to a special Board of Inquiry which agreed to let them remain. A senile old man, for example, was admitted when his son arrived and pledged to care for his father. After being detained for various mental tests, a woman was released. Asked by an examiner administering the tests to tell him if she would use a broom in a picture he showed her to sweep stairs from the bottom up or from the top down she replied pluckily: "I didn't come to America to sweep stairs"--enough said to convince the gentleman of her competence.

Some of the immigrants who had passed the medical examination lined up before Mr. Martocci in fenced off aisles and benches waiting to be called before him. They waited for what must have seemed an interminable amount of time, but typically an immigrant's stay at Ellis Island lasted about three hours. Martocci would be assigned sections of a ship's manifest, 30 names at a time, each passenger's name followed by his or her responses to twenty-nine questions previously posed by the shipping company's representatives. What is your name? Have you ever been hospitalized for insanity? Have you ever been imprisoned? Are you an anarchist? A polygamist? A charity case? Who paid your fare? Where are you going? Do you have a job? How much money do you have with you? Is your husband coming to meet you today? And so on. The inspector could use his intuition and his discretion as to which manifest questions to ask again, which to forego. The intent was to identify illegal entering aliens, criminals, those under pre-arranged labor contracts, young children and older people unable to support themselves, political dissidents, and those who might be a public charge or morally irresponsible individuals.

Soon the Great Hall would be filled with people. Two thousand or more aliens, people of all ages, the majority between the ages of 18 and 30 occupied it at any one time. A cacophony of noise, crying infants, and languages echoed up and around its fifty-six foot ceilings. The stench of steerage passengers unable to bathe for days, the odor of sausages, bread, and cheese mingled with disinfectant. "Hush child!" could be heard in Greek, Yiddish, French, German, Lithuanian, or Italian. "What will happen to us in America?", "Where is my husband?", "My son?" "My daughter?," could be heard in Russian, Slovak, Rumanian, Bohemian, Arabic, Armenian, Turkish, Finnish, Norwegian, Persian, Croatian, Slovenian, Gaelic or Portuguese. "Move along now!" "This is the "G" line, come on now, come on.... Goldschmidt and Fanelli goes here, G line!" shouts a gate keeper attempting to send each newcomer to the inspection line assigned for his ship manifest. A porter holding a broom trails behind him sweeping up remnants of the day's breakfast.

Representatives of religious denominations and charity organizations plied through the crowd. Were there any Jews, Lutherans, or Catholics seeking assistance, perhaps a Bible to bring with them when they leave? Interpreters worked the floor lines assisting inspectors and immigrants. Social workers representing Italian and Jewish welfare societies stood nearby the inspectors waiting to take unescorted women to the second floor dormitory area or detention room. They comforted those whose loved ones had been set aside and told to report to the detention or special inspection rooms. Clerks sitting behind the inspectors entered information and tallymen clicked numbers. And so the lines passed, Martocci and the other inspectors sometimes appearing outwardly gruff but now and then smiling at some minor human incident or patting some small child's cheek. After an inspector nodded his approval the immigrants went down the stairs to make their way to New York City, or they went to the railroad ticket office below seeking passage towards some other destination. Every day, behind the inspector at the bottom of the stairs stood waiting relatives who cried with joy or hugged with silent tears their newly arrived relatives and friends. This place, recognized for its emotional reunions, became known as the "kissing post."

The detained immigrants remained behind, housed in dormitory roms on the third and second floors, rooms packed tight with vertical rows of iron beds. Most would remain only a day or two, until ticket money, a sponsor or a relative arrived. An information office and social workers assisted in locating relatives and families. In a few cases, the detention could last for weeks until a solution was found, a relative or husband located, or an illness cured. Sick detainees went to the general hospital or to the contagious disease hospital established on the island during the peak migration years before the first World War. The rest of the detainees waited to appeal their cases to the Special Boards of Inquiry which operated daily on the island. If their appeals were not granted they waited at the expense of the steam ship company on the island until deportation could be arranged. They would not be allowed to seek re-entry for twelve months; later, legislation would require a three-year wait.

Excerpts from a list of immigrants who arrived in the early 1920's provides examples of individuals who were deported and detained: Greta Schmidt. (Exclusion--Young Woman Assisted by "Cousin"); Nicolo and Francesca Archieri. (Contagious Disease--Hospital Treatment); Katerina Kosice. (Excluded--Contagious Disease); Esther Litski--Illegal Entry); Three Polish Girls: Maryanna Czarnecowska, Maryanna Kruza, Maryanna Vraza (Exclusion--Unsatisfactory Conditions in Chicago); Katie Schultz--(Expulsion--Feeble-minded); Peter Johann Simann. (Deportation after Landing--Public Charge within One Year); Margaret Heckert and Leopold Koenig (Unmarried Man and Woman Traveling Together); Demetrious Spiros--(Deportation after Temporary Admission--Certified Physical Defect).

Only 2% of entering aliens were eventually deported. During the period of heavy immigration from the 1890's until 1924, the Boards of Special Inquiry were not so much concerned with preventing immigration as they were with preventing the immigration of individuals who might become public charges.

Why it Happened and What it Means

This is what happened on Ellis Island every day. It seems commonplace enough to us now: an immigrant processing station run by government bureaucrats who held the fate of thousands in their hands. But if we excavate beneath the surface of its daily activities, Ellis Island reveals itself as a unique institution established at a particular moment in the nation's history, on the one hand, an efficient and practical solution to immigration admission, on the other, a manifestation of broader attitudes and issues: American ideas concerning citizenship and nationality, proper government and big government, public health and public order, and the provision of a politically stable, healthy labor force. What happened on Ellis Island, in other words, was an outcome of many of the same concerns which Americans have today about immigration. Who is entitled to the benefits of citizenship including education and medical care? Is it up to the states or the federal government to make and oversee such a decision? Do resident citizens suffer from the labor competition of alien workers? Should racial attitudes or the fear of being overwhelmed by foreigners determine state policy towards immigration in a nation founded on the belief in human equality? Is the United State's capacity to accept newcomers infinite?

There is no doubt of the historical and symbolic significance of Ellis Island both in the public imagination and in written history. More than twelve million people entered the United States through its doors. Four out of ten Americans claim ancestors who came through the place.

While the popular memory usually recalls Ellis Island as the beginning of a new life of economic opportunity, passage through its doors to America also meant a choice to become an American freely taken, and for the most part, freely given. For this reason, Ellis Island, the place, stands beside the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation as one of the major "documents" of the American nation. It has mythological import for all -- of European, African, Asian, or Latin American origin -- who chose to become and will choose to become Americans.

How did this come about? How did Ellis Island become invested with this meaning? In 1892, when Ellis Island opened its doors, the United States was the world's oldest democracy and one of its youngest nations. Much in need of the labor, brawn and talents of newcomers, this nation of people who were born and would continue to be born elsewhere, had to devise original methods for creating citizenship. One could become an American, as is the case in most western democracies, by being born here or by blood inheritance; but one could also choose to be American. Indeed, one of the most unique and innovative aspects of United States nationality is that one can choose to possess it. The decision made by Ellis Island inspectors for admission instead of deportation was, therefore, a preliminary to the naturalization process of aliens. Immigration officials and legislators of the period understood the entrance procedures as a screening out of those who would not make desirable citizens. Ellis Island was a place where thousands chose to start the process of becoming an American.

While many Americans and foreigners seem to understand this and other kinds of symbolic significance which the place has, Ellis Island's changing history and its practical value to the nation seem to be more difficult to grasp. Perhaps that is because its actual history, as actual history often does, sometimes negates positive symbols from the past. Perhaps it is because most of what took place at Ellis Island belongs to the ordinary, mundane world of practical affairs. Ellis Island was a place of choice and of opportunity, but it was also a place of exclusion, rejection, and deportation. Its changing agenda, what actually took place there, reflected American attitudes towards immigrants--sometimes welcoming, sometimes exclusionary and racist. It was an artifact of American immigration law, but it also represented a move towards a strong central government, and an expression of the bureaucratic reform politics of the Progressive era.

Its coming into being in 1892 resulted from national politics of the moment, specifically, the growing acceptance in post-Civil War America of a strong centralized national government, one which could oversee rapid industrial development, a national transportation system, and a national economy. Immigration, supervised by the several states if it was regulated at all before the 1880's, provided a clear case for the necessity of a central federal power which could deal systematically and uniformly with people crossing national boundaries and with the enormous numbers of immigrants seeking to fill America's never ending demand for labor. The 1885 Alien Contract Labor law presents one example of the difficulties of enforcing legislation without federal participation. Intended to protect the wages of American laborers, this law made it a criminal offense to import aliens under any contract made prior to the importation for performance of labor or service of any kind. The law made no provision for enforcement of its terms through inspection or deportation, and the states could not enforce it. Advances in medical knowledge concerning the spread of communicable diseases also made the necessity for federal inspection of entering people clear; uniform standards were required. Progressive reform politics of the period which touted honesty, efficiency, uniform application of the law, civil service, and the use of experts by government for the public good was strongly apparent in Ellis Island's daily procedures.

Ellis Island continues to be best remembered as an immigrant processing center. Indeed, it was a stage on which the terms of American immigration law were acted out. Once this is grasped everything that happened there can be understood. The questions asked by legal and medical inspectors, the provision of hospitalization and contagious disease units, deportation, and the Special Boards of Inquiry were bureaucratic solutions to legal requirements. Ellis Island's changing function from an admission center to a deportation and detention center after 1924 also resulted from changes in immigration law.

Soon after the Supreme Court established federal jurisdiction over immigration (1876), Congress passed a series of laws in the 1880's and 1890's which excluded various groups of people from entering the United States. The Immigration Act of 1891 established the Ellis Island processing station as well as other federal stations, created the office of the Superintendent of Immigration within the Treasury Department, required all entering aliens to answer questions about their place of origin, destination, and health which had to match the answers they provided for the ship's manifests. In 1913, the Labor Department took over immigration, a recognition of the significance of immigration as a source of labor. The Justice Department, which had engaged in certain aspects of field research concerning deportations for the immigration service, took over its current control of immigration in 1940, a logical move since many of the country's immigration problems during and just before World II concerned legal issues of deportation and illegal aliens, not admission. By that date, of course, Ellis Island was also being used as a detention and deportation center, not an immigrant admission station. The nations of the world have adopted one of two basic ideas towards the admission of immigrants. One, evident today among European nations, holds that no aliens should be admitted unless there is specific need or provision for their admission. Germany's temporary admission of Turkish "guestworkers" is an example. The other policy position holds that aliens should be admitted unless a specific prohibition is enacted against them. In the United States, this policy of selective restriction of certain persons or qualitative control of immigration, sometimes called the "Open Door" policy period began in 1875, and extended through Ellis Island's peak years from 1892 to the early 1920's. Individuals were excluded for reasons having to do with their individual traits. Where they ill or unable to care for themselves? Mentally incapable of functioning? Political dissidents? Illegal labor contractors? Likely to be a public charge? Congress passed a series of laws in this period which specified the kinds of individuals who would face deportation if they attempted to enter the United States. By 1917 the list was long. It included thirtythree classes of exclusions including: idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, insane persons, previously insane persons, persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority, chronic alcoholics, paupers, professional beggars, vagrants, persons with tuberculosis, or "Loathsome or dangerous contagious disease," anyone with a physical or mental defect which might affect his ability to earn a living, those who had committed crimes involving "moral turpitude," polygamists, anarchists, those who believed in or advocated overthrow of government, those who believed in the assassination of public officials, those who advocated destruction of property, those affiliated with any organization promoting the previously mentioned views, prostitutes or any one coming into the United States for immoral purposes, pimps and procurers, contract laborers, laborers who had come to the U.S. in response to advertisements for laborers published abroad, persons likely to become a public charge for any reason, those who had been deported unless approved by the Attorney General, persons whose passage had been paid for by another unless it is shown they did not belong to one of the above excluded classes, persons whose passage was paid for by any corporation, society, or foreign government, stowaways, children under 16 unaccompanied by a parent, or not coming to a parent unless approved by the Attorney General, almost all Asian immigrants not already barred by the Chinese exclusion laws (1875, 1882, 1884) and the Gentleman's Agreement with Japan (1905), and those over 16 who could not read some language except political refugees, those escaping religious persecution, and any aliens legally admitted may send for spouses, parents, grandparents or unmarried or widowed daughters over 55 years whether they can read or write.

In 1921, Congress initiated a major turnabout in immigration control policy, which it firmly institutionalised in 1924 when, subject to nativist pressures, it imposed a ceiling on immigration and quotas for various nations. So began a major shift in United States immigration policy which initiated the period of "quantitative controls" that remains with us still. With these quantitative restrictions in place, immigration became an alien's privilege, not an alien's right. Coincidental with this restrictionist approach, the United States moved its primary admissions procedures abroad under the supervision of the various American consulates and health experts in the immigrant's country of origin. Passports and visas also came to be required in the post 1924 restrictionist era. Increasingly, Ellis Island was used as a detention and deportation center, rather than as an admission depot. In 1924 it processed 315, 587 immigrants. By 1925 the number dropped to 137,492. As America closed its "open door," the daily drama of early twentieth-century Ellis Island, the ground where aliens elected to be Americans, came to an end .

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