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 modern airports back then, just a vast ocean to cross. So all the Poles, Russians, Italians, Greeks, Turks, Swedes, Germans and dozens of other nationalities arrived by steamship. For passengers newly arrived in New York City, 1st & 2nd class were left off in lower Manhattan with a precursory check of their papers. Poorer immigrants in third class “steerage” however were ferried by barge, along with their meager baggage to Ellis Island, sitting 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.
Nervous immigrants were marched up a winding flight of stairs to the GREAT HALL, with its impressive, high arched ceiling. In the Registry Room, they wandered through a maze of tall metal railings for registry. One can only imagine the myriad of languages and smells that filled that historic chamber. First, each underwent a very brief Physical Exam (which included their mental state). In particular, doctors looked for rashes, fever, birth defects, limps, labored breathing, excessive coughing, lice, contagious eye disease and even “feeble mindedness.” If they saw nothing suspicious, it lasted all of two minutes. Anyone with suspected health issues was marked with chalk on their clothing and sent 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 once again for questioning by the Immigration Inspectors. Sitting on tall stools behind high desks with translators at the ready, they had all the ships’ manifests in front of them. An
immigrant’s fate in the US literally depended on these single men. Any issue might put an immigrant in front of the dreaded Board of Special Inquiry, who would ultimately decide if they could stay in the US or not.
During their crossing, they were required to complete 29 Questions and hand them in at Ellis Island.
Parents would complete the questions for their children. Their answers became part of the ship’s manifest and were later scrutinized by the Immigration Inspectors in Ellis Island’s 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 US 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 needed)
- 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 been 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 – numbers 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 United States, or be a burden on its society?
Due to the thousands being processed daily, the interview could take as little as three minutes!
If all was in order, physical and questionnaire, the nervous and relieved immigrants were released. And that was it! There were no complicated asylum requests, immigration judges, Green Cards or Visas to deal with back then. The entire process, including waiting in line, could take up to 5 nerve-wracking hours. At any time, our ancestors might be denied entry and sent back across the ocean on the next available steamship.
Leaving the Great Hall were the Stairs of Separation where those free to go went down one side, and those detained went down another. Dormitories were on the island to house the detainees. That’s why it was referred to at the Island of Hope and the Island of Tears. Once cleared however, they could go downstairs and grab a free meal in the Dining Hall, retrieve their meager baggage, exchange foreign currency for dollars, and then be ferried to train stations in New Jersey for trips westward.
Imagine leaving all that you knew – your former life and often some family members completely behind – with the hopes of a better life in free America, the land of unlimited opportunity. Perhaps you were fleeing war or tyranny or poverty. You spoke not a word of English! A single carpet bag or leather satchel carried all your worldly possessions – a change of clothes, all the money you had in the world, a treasured picture or two. You survived a wave-tossed Atlantic crossing in the belly of a cold steamship, in overcrowded 3rd Class conditions with poor food and sea-sick passengers. Now your fate was determined by a physical exam, three minutes with an inspector, and 29 Questions!
While approximately one in five were detained for the hospital or 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 TWO PERCENT. The rest were welcomed into the Melting Pot that is the United States of America. They became our grandparents and great-grandparents. Their foods, their holidays, their customs and traditions all became American standards over the generations. Try to imagine the US without pizza, Christmas trees or St. Patricks Day. Decades of their hard labor helped make America into the great nation it is today. Most of us wouldn’t be here, if it wasn’t for the courage and sacrifice of our immigrant ancestors.
Some thoughts to ponder as immigrants and immigration are yet again at the forefront of the American way of life, and indeed across the entire world.
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