An Immigrant’s Ellis Island Fate Depended on 29 Questions

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ellis island
                      Ellis Island Immigration Station, New York Harbor, 1900

For a vast number of Americans, including myself, our great-grandparents arrived in the U.S. as immigrants in the early 1900’s. There were no modern airports back then, just a vast grey ocean to cross.  So all the Poles, Russians, Italians, Greeks, Swedes, Germans and dozens of other nationalities made the crossing and 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 or “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 registration.  One can only imagine the myriad of languages and smells that filled that historic chamber.   First, each immigrant underwent a very brief Physical Exam (which included an assessment of 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 three 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 U.S. 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:

                Ellis Island Immigration Station’s Great Hall
    1. Your manifest number (from your ship)
    2. What is your full name?
    3. How old are you?
    4. Are you male or female?
    5. Are you married, single, widowed, or divorced?
    6. What is your occupation?
    7. Are you able to read and write? (yes or no)
    8. What country are you from?
    9. What is your race? (note: no question was asked about religion)
    10. What was your last permanent place of residence? (city and country)
    11. What is the name and US address of a relative from your native country?
    12. What is your final destination in America? (city and state)
    13. Your number on the immigration list?
    14. Do you have a ticket to your final destination? (yes or no)
    15. Who paid for your passage?
    16. How much money do you have? (at least the equivalent of $50 dollars was needed)
    17. Have you been to America before? If so when, where and how long?
    18. Are you meeting a relative here in America?  If so, who and their address?
    19. Have you been in a prison, charity almshouse, or insane asylum?
    20. Are you a polygamist?  (Yes or No)
    21. Are you an anarchist? (a real anarchist would have been a fool to say yes)
    22. Are you coming to America for a job?  What and where will you work?
    23. What is the condition of your health?
    24. Are you deformed or crippled?
    25. How tall are you?
    26. What is your skin color?
    27. What color are your eyes and hair? (much like on today’s driver’s license)
    28. Do you have any identifying marks? (scars, birthmarks, or tattoos)
    29. Where were you born? (city and country)

[More at: https://www.nps.gov/elis/learn/historyculture/index.htm%5D

The key questions the inspectors focused on were purposely scattered throughout the list – numbers 6, 16 and 22.  Basically Do you know a trade?  Do you have enough 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 very 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.

Immigrants lined up to leave Ellis Island

Imagine leaving all that you knew – your former life and often some family completely behind – with the hopes of a better life in free America, the land of unlimited opportunity.  Perhaps you were fleeing World War I or tyranny or povertyYou likely 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.  They were NOT, however, generally welcomed by the average, established American.  Bigotry and discrimination against immigrants were unfortunately the norm for decades.

Nevertheless, a century of their hard, lower class labor helped make America into the great and powerful nation it is today. They became American citizens.  Their foods, their holidays, their customs and traditions all joined the Melting Pot and became American standards over the generations.  Try to imagine the U.S. without Italian pizza, German Christmas trees or Irish St. Patricks Day.   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, 100+ years later, 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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Published by andrewspaulw

I write a Lost in History Blog & Podcast about forgotten history still relevant in today's world. I also have four Historical Fiction novels, available on Amazon.

8 thoughts on “An Immigrant’s Ellis Island Fate Depended on 29 Questions

  1. It was so much more orderly; so organized. Like the 29 basic questions and the fact they were required to have at least some money in their pockets. My mother came through Ellis Island, she eventually took the citizenship test to become a naturalized American Citizen. She learned to speak rather good English, raised nine children, got a job as cleaning lady in the local hospital and took pride in voting. Never did our family of eleven live off of unearned benefits. My father was born in America; was raised in Hungary but then came back through Ellis Island to join the American Army and became a Silver Star receipient. We need more immigrants like my parents were; I think.

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  2. I’ve managed to retrieve my grandfather’s immigration record from Ellis Island which was great. I have a question that I was hoping you could help with. Under the heading of ‘able to read what language (if exemption claimed, on what grounds) ‘, the word ‘riservist’ (spelt like that, was written. Do you know what that means or where I could find out what that word means. Many thanks, Mary

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    1. Riservist is an archaic spelling of reservist, meaning he may have belonged to a military reserve of some kind, like our National Guard. Not sure why that would be under the language heading though.

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  3. Everyone in America should read this at least once. Very few people are aware of any of this. The immigration debate would be so different if people read this.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I shared it with 8 family members and coworkers with a range of beliefs. Most importantly, I sat down with my 11 year old son and we read them together. Ironically, he just studied Ellis Island in school (6th grade) but was never shown this actual document.

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