For a vast number of Americans, including myself, our great-grand parents arrived in the US as immigrants in the early 1900’s. There were no airlines back then, so all the Poles, Russians, Italians, Greeks, Germans and other Eastern Europeans arrived by steamship. For passengers newly arrived in NYC, 1st & 2nd class were left off in lower Manhattan with a precursory check. Immigrants in third class steerage however were ferried by barge, with their meager baggage to Ellis Island, in the shadow of Lady Liberty. There, with a ship’s manifest number pinned to their clothes, they queued up by the thousands to enter the intimidating Immigration Station with its 4 domed towers.
Immigrants were marched up a winding flight of stairs to the Great Hall, with its impressive, high arched ceiling. In the Registry Room, they meandered through a maze of tall metal railings for registry. First, each underwent a brief physical exam (which included their mental state). In particular, doctors looked for rashes, fever, birth defects, limps, labored breathing, excessive coughing, lice, and contagious eye disease and even feeble mindedness. Anyone with suspected health issues was marked with caulk on their clothing and sent them to the Ellis Island hospital, where their ultimate fate would be determined.
If they passed the physical, the next step was waiting in long lines to be questioning by Immigration Inspectors. Sitting on tall stools behind high desks with translators standing by as necessary, they had all the ships manifests. Any issues might put an immigrant in front of a Board of Special Inquiry, who would ultimately decide if they could stay in the US.
During their crossing, they were required to complete the following 29 questions and hand them in at Ellis Island.
Their answers became part of the ship’s manifest and were scrutinized by the immigration inspectors in the Great Hall:
- Your manifest number (from your ship)
- What is your full name?
- How old are you?
- Are you male or female?
- Are you married, single, widowed or divorced?
- What is your occupation?
- Are you able to read and write? (yes or no)
- What country are you from?
- What is your race? (note: no question was asked about religion)
- What was your last permanent place of residence? (city and country)
- What is the name and address of a relative from your native country?
- What is your final destination in America? (city and state)
- Your number on the immigration list?
- Do you have a ticket to your final destination? (yes or no)
- Who paid for your passage?
- How much money do you have? (at least the equivalent of $50 dollars was preferred)
- Have you been to America before? If so when, where and how long?
- Are you meeting a relative here in America? If so, who and their address?
- Have you been in a prison, charity almshouse, or insane asylum?
- Are you a polygamist? (Yes or No)
- Are you an anarchist? (a real anarchist would have to be a fool to say yes)
- Are you coming to America for a job? What and where will you work?
- What is the condition of your health?
- Are you deformed or crippled?
- How tall are you?
- What is your skin color?
- What color are your eyes and hair? (much like on today’s driver’s license)
- Do you have any identifying marks? (scars, birthmarks, or tattoos)
- Where were you born? (city and country)
The key questions the inspectors focused on were purposely scattered throughout – 6, 16 and 22. Basically do you know a trade, do you have money, and where will you work in the United States? In other words, would you be able to contribute to the US, or be a burden on society?
Due to the thousands being processed, the interview could take as little as two minutes! Only if all was in order would the nervous immigrants be released. And that was it! There were no complicated Green Cards or Visas to deal with back then. The entire process could take up to 5 nerve-wracking hours. At any time, they might be denied entry and sent back across the ocean on the next available steamship. Once cleared, could they grab a free meal in the Dining Hall, retrieve their baggage, exchange their foreign currency for dollars, and were ferried to train stations in New Jersey.
Imagine leaving all that your knew – your former life behind – with the hopes of a better world in free America, the land of unlimited opportunity. Perhaps you were fleeing War or Tyranny or Poverty. A single carpet bag or leather satchel carried all your worldly possessions. You survived a wave-tossed Atlantic crossing in the belly of a steamship, in overcrowded 3rd class conditions with sea-sick passengers. Now your fate was determined by a physical exam, two minutes with an inspector, and 29 questions!
While approximately one in five were detained for the Board of Special Inquiry, only 2% of the 12 million immigrants processed at Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954 were ever deported and sent back to their countries. That’s right, only 2%. The rest were welcomed into the Melting Pot that is the United States of America and became our grandparents and great-grandparents. Their foods, their holidays, their traditions all became American standards over the generations. We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for their courage and sacrifice. Something to ponder as immigration is yet again at the forefront of our American way of life.
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