November 4, 2012, Sunday, 308

Ellis Island

From The Peopling of New York City


Ellis Island

Ellis Island1.jpg
     New York is indisputably one of the most ethnically diverse states in America. Its ethnic diversity is one of the major factors that defines the city. This diversity helps it to completely adsorb any new in coming individual or group. The same cannot be said of other cities in different parts of the United States that have a more ethnically homogenous population.

     Many agree that the different ethnic flavours in New York City are an asset as they uniquely and significantly contribute to its high rate of social and economic success as a city.

     In studying the role of these migrant and immigrant groups in the shaping of New York’s identity, it becomes pertinent that we also investigate their immigration history; the when, how, and why they came to New York.

     Ellis Island is undoubtedly a significant milestone in the study of the new population masses of New York. As the first port of entry for the arriving masses, it inadvertently harbors the answers to most of the questions concerning the first wave of immigrants to the United States.

     The Ellis Island history and records of the island’s activities before it was shut down, gives not only an idea of how the ancestors of most Americans- New Yorkers especially- arrived New York, but it also tells us who they were and the general push factors leading to their immigration to New York.

Ellis Island History

From 1892 to 1954, over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through the portal of Ellis Island, a small island in New York Harbor. Ellis Island is located in the upper bay just off the New Jersey coast, within the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Through the years, this gateway to the new world was enlarged from its original 3.3 acres to 27.5 acres mostly by landfill obtained from ship ballast and possibly excess earth from the construction of the New York City subway system.

Before being designated as the site of the first Federal immigration station by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890, Ellis Island had a varied history. The local Indian tribes had called it "Kioshk" or Gull Island. Due to its rich and abundant oyster beds and plentiful and profitable shad runs, it was known as Oyster Island for many generations during the Dutch and English colonial periods. By the time Samuel Ellis became the island's private owner in the 1770's, the island had been called Kioshk, Oyster, Dyre, Bucking and Anderson's Island. In this way, Ellis Island developed from a sandy island that barely rose above the high tide mark, into a hanging site for pirates, a harbor fort, ammunition and ordinance depot named Fort Gibson, and finally into an immigration station.

Ellis Island And The Military
From 1794 to 1890 (pre-immigration station period), Ellis Island played a mostly uneventful but still important military role in United States history. When the British occupied New York City during the duration of the Revolutionary War, its large and powerful naval fleet was able to sail unimpeded directly into New York Harbor. Therefore, it was deemed critical by the United States Government that a series of coastal fortifications in New York Harbor be constructed just prior to the War of 1812. After much legal haggling over ownership of the island, the Federal government purchased Ellis Island from New York State in 1808. Ellis Island was approved as a site for fortifications and on it was constructed a parapet for three tiers of circular guns, making the island part of the new harbor defense system that included Castle Clinton at the Battery, Castle Williams on Governor's Island, Fort Wood on Bedloe's Island and two earthworks forts at the entrance to New York Harbor at the Verrazano Narrows. The fort at Ellis Island was named Fort Gibson in honor of a brave officer killed during the War of 1812.
Prior to 1890, the individual states (rather than the Federal government) regulated immigration into the United States. Castle Garden in the Battery (originally known as Castle Clinton) served as the New York State immigration station from 1855 to 1890 and approximately eight million immigrants, mostly from Northern and Western Europe, passed through its doors. These early immigrants came from nations such as England, Ireland, Germany and the Scandinavian countries and constituted the first large wave of immigrants that settled and populated the United States. Throughout the 1800's and intensifying in the latter half of the 19th century, ensuing political instability, restrictive religious laws and deteriorating economic conditions in Europe began to fuel the largest mass human migration in the history of the world. It soon became apparent that Castle Garden was ill-equipped and unprepared to handle the growing numbers of immigrants arriving yearly. Unfortunately compounding the problems of the small facility were the corruption and incompetence found to be commonplace at Castle Garden.

Innovations On Ellis Island
The Federal government intervened and constructed a new Federally-operated immigration station on Ellis Island. While the new immigration station on Ellis Island was under construction, the Barge Office at the Battery was used for the processing of immigrants. The new structure on Ellis Island, built of "Georgia pine" opened on January 1, 1892; Annie Moore, a 15 year-old Irish girl, accompanied by her two brothers entered history and a new country as she was the very first immigrant to be processed at Ellis Island on January 2. Over the next 62 years, more than 12 million were to follow through this port of entry.

While there were many reasons to emigrate to America, no reason could be found for what would occur only five years after the Ellis Island Immigration Station opened. During the evening of June 14, 1897, a fire on Ellis Island, burned the immigration station completely to the ground. Although no lives were lost, many years of Federal and State immigration records dating back to 1855 burned along with the pine buildings that failed to protect them. The United States Treasury quickly ordered the immigration facility be replaced under one very important condition. All future structures built on Ellis Island had to be fireproof. On December 17, 1900, the new Main Building was opened and 2,251 immigrants were received that day.
While most immigrants entered the United States through New York Harbor (the most popular destination of steamship companies), others sailed into many ports such as Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco and Savannah, Miami, and New Orleans. The great steamship companies like White Star, Red Star, Cunard and Hamburg-America played a significant role in the history of Ellis Island and immigration in general. First and second class passengers who arrived in New York Harbor were not required to undergo the inspection process at Ellis Island. Instead, these passengers underwent a cursory inspection aboard ship; the theory being that if a person could afford to purchase a first or second class ticket, they were less likely to become a public charge in America due to medical or legal reasons. The Federal government felt that these more affluent passengers would not end up in institutions, hospitals or become a burden to the state. However, first and second class passengers were sent to Ellis Island for further inspection if they were sick or had legal problems.

....and the inspection of the new arrivals....
This scenario was far different for "steerage" or third class passengers. These immigrants traveled in crowded and often unsanitary conditions near the bottom of steamships with few amenities, often spending up to two weeks seasick in their bunks during rough Atlantic Ocean crossings. Upon arrival in New York City, ships would dock at the Hudson or East River piers. First and second class passengers would disembark, pass through Customs at the piers and were free to enter the United States. The steerage and third class passengers were transported from the pier by ferry or barge to Ellis Island where everyone would undergo a medical and legal inspection.

If the immigrant's papers were in order and they were in reasonably good health, the Ellis Island inspection process would last approximately three to five hours. The inspections took place in the Registry Room (or Great Hall), where doctors would briefly scan every immigrant for obvious physical ailments. Doctors at Ellis Island soon became very adept at conducting these "six second physicals." By 1916, it was said that a doctor could identify numerous medical conditions (ranging from anemia to goiters to varicose veins) just by glancing at an immigrant. The ship's manifest log (that had been filled out back at the port of embarkation) contained the immigrant's name and his/her answers to twenty-nine questions. This document was used by the legal inspectors at Ellis Island to cross examine the immigrant during the legal (or primary) inspection. The two agencies responsible for processing immigrants at Ellis Island were the United States Public Health Service and the Bureau of Immigration (later known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service - INS). On March 1, 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was re-structured and included into 3 separate bureaus as part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. For more information on these three bureaus and their mission, visit their websites at the following:

Bureau of Citizenship & Immigration Services -

Bureau of Immigrations & Customs Enforcement -

Bureau of Customs & Border Protection -

Island Of Hope.... Island of Tears....
Despite the island's reputation as an "Island of Tears", the vast majority of immigrants were treated courteously and respectfully, and were free to begin their new lives in America after only a few short hours on Ellis Island. Only two percent of the arriving immigrants were excluded from entry. The two main reasons why an immigrant would be excluded were if a doctor diagnosed that the immigrant had a contagious disease that would endanger the public health or if a legal inspector thought the immigrant was likely to become a public charge or an illegal contract laborer.

During the early 1900's, immigration officials mistakenly thought that the peak wave of immigration had already passed. Actually, immigration was on the rise and in 1907, more people immigrated to the United States than any other year; approximately 1.25 million immigrants were processed at Ellis Island in that one year. Consequently, masons and carpenters were constantly struggling to enlarge and build new facilities to accommodate this greater than anticipated influx of new immigrants. Hospital buildings, dormitories, contagious disease wards and kitchens were all were feverishly constructed between 1900 and 1915.

As the United States entered World War I, immigration to the United States decreased. Numerous suspected enemy aliens throughout the United States were brought to Ellis Island under custody. Between 1918 and 1919, detained suspected enemy aliens were transferred from Ellis Island to other locations in order for the United States Navy with the Army Medical Department to take over the island complex for the duration of the war. During this time, regular inspection of arriving immigrants was conducted on board ship or at the docks. At the end of World War I, a big "Red Scare" spread across America and thousands of suspected alien radicals were interred at Ellis Island. Hundreds were later deported based upon the principal of guilt by association with any organizations advocating revolution against the Federal government. In 1920, Ellis Island reopened as an immigration receiving station and 225,206 immigrants were processed that year.

From the very beginning of the mass migration that spanned the years (roughly) 1880 to 1924, an increasingly vociferous group of politicians and nativists demanded increased restrictions on immigration. Laws and regulations such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Alien Contract Labor Law and the institution of a literacy test barely stemmed this flood tide of new immigrants. Actually, the death knell for Ellis Island, as a major entry point for new immigrants, began to toll in 1921. It reached a crescendo between 1921 with the passage of the Quota Laws and 1924 with the passage of the National Origins Act. These restrictions were based upon a percentage system according to the number of ethnic groups already living in the United States as per the 1890 and 1910 Census. It was an attempt to preserve the ethnic flavor of the "old immigrants", those earlier settlers primarily from Northern and Western Europe. The perception existed that the newly arriving immigrants mostly from southern and eastern Europe were somehow inferior to those who arrived earlier.

After World War I, the United States began to emerge as a potential world power. United States embassies were established in countries all over the world, and prospective immigrants now applied for their visas at American consulates in their countries of origin. The necessary paperwork was completed at the consulate and a medical inspection was also conducted there. After 1924, the only people who were detained at Ellis Island were those who had problems with their paperwork, as well as war refugees and displaced persons.
Ellis Island still remained open for many years and served a multitude of purposes. During World War II, enemy merchant seamen were detained in the baggage and dormitory building. The United States Coast Guard also trained about 60,000 servicemen there. In November of 1954 the last detainee, a Norwegian merchant seaman named Arne Peterssen was released, and Ellis Island officially closed.[1]

Mother of Exiles:
Ellis Island And The Statue of Liberty National Monument

Statue of Liberty: History
The Statue of Liberty National Monument officially celebrated her 100th birthday on October 28, 1986. The people of France gave the Statue to the people of the United States over one hundred years ago in recognition of the friendship established during the American Revolution. Over the years, the Statue of Liberty has grown to include freedom and democracy as well as this international friendship.

Sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi was commissioned to design a sculpture with the year 1876 in mind for completion, to commemorate the centennial of the American Declaration of Independence. The Statue was a joint effort between America and France and it was agreed upon that the American people were to build the pedestal, and the French people were responsible for the Statue and its assembly here in the United States. However, lack of funds was a problem on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In France, public fees, various forms of entertainment, and a lottery were among the methods used to raise funds. In the United States, benefit theatrical events, art exhibitions, auctions and prize fights assisted in providing needed funds. Meanwhile in France, Bartholdi required the assistance of an engineer to address structural issues associated with designing such as colossal copper sculpture. Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel (designer of the Eiffel Tower) was commissioned to design the massive iron pylon and secondary skeletal framework which allows the Statue's copper skin to move independently yet stand upright. Back in America, fund raising for the pedestal was going particularly slowly, so Joseph Pulitzer (noted for the Pulitzer Prize) opened up the editorial pages of his newspaper, "The World" to support the fund raising effort. Pulitzer used his newspaper to criticize both the rich who had failed to finance the pedestal construction and the middle class who were content to rely upon the wealthy to provide the funds. Pulitzer's campaign of harsh criticism was successful in motivating the people of America to donate.

Financing for the pedestal was completed in August 1885, and pedestal construction was finished in April of 1886. The Statue was completed in France in July, 1884 and arrived in New York Harbor in June of 1885 on board the French frigate "Isere" which transported the Statue of Liberty from France to the United States. In transit, the Statue was reduced to 350 individual pieces and packed in 214 crates. The Statue was re-assembled on her new pedestal in four months time. On October 28th 1886, the dedication of the Statue of Liberty took place in front of thousands of spectators. She was a centennial gift ten years late. The story of the Statue of Liberty and her island has been one of change. The Statue was placed upon a granite pedestal inside the courtyard of the star-shaped walls of Fort Wood (which had been completed for the War of 1812.) The United States Lighthouse Board had responsibility for the operation of the Statue of Liberty until 1901. By 1902, the care and operation of the Statue was placed under the War Department. Due to acts of sabotage of the Black Tom Explosion on July 30, 1916, the Statue's torch was officially closed.

"…..Give me your tired, your poor .......”

For many of the new immigrants approaching Ellis Island on the ships, the sight of the Statue of Liberty on the neighboring Liberty Island brought a flood of emotions. For many of them, it was a divine sign of hope. Most of these immigrants had left their native land in search of a new beginning in America, for themselves and their families. Majority were poor, while some others were political exiles fleeing their country.
For all of them, the words of the sonnet The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus(1849-1887)written in 1883 and, in 1903, engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the Statue of Liberty, rang very true:

Statue of Liberty
"....and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Emma Lazarus, 1883

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Ellis Island was opened to the public on a limited basis between 1976 and 1984. Starting in 1984, Ellis Island underwent a major restoration, the largest historic restoration in U.S. history. The $160 million dollar project was funded by donations made to The Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. in partnership with the National Park Service. The Main Building was reopened to the public on September 10, 1990 as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
Today, the museum receives almost 2 million visitors annually.


Effects of the Exodus on the New World

      The immediate effects of the immigration boom Ellis Island processed are obvious: The US' immigration population greatly increased and the cultural make-up of the country significantly changed. To get an idea of how much Ellis Island changed the American population, all we need to look at are the numbers. Between Ellis Island's opening on January 1, 1892 until its closing on November 12, 1954, the facility handled over 12 million immigrants who would permanently change America's population.

Wseix img grphs1880.jpg

      During Ellis Island's peak years (1880-1930), Ellis Island would accept over 4,600,000 Italian immigrants, 4,000,000 Austrian immigrants, 3,000,000 Russian immigrants, and approximately 2,000,000 each of German, British, Canadian, and Irish immigrants. These immigrants would have a profound impact on American culture and society.

      As a nation, America was steadily relying more and more on factory work and production in order to sustain life and to help support a growing nation., As a result, America needed many workers who were willing to work the low wage jobs and the horrible safety conditions. This is where the immigrants come in. Due to the political, economic, and relative social stability in America, immigrants from Europe flocked to America in masses, hoping to grab a slice of the pie. America, only gaining in economic power, was more than happy to let these immigrants in. In addition to working in the factories, these immigrants added to the view of America as "everyone's country." They are almsot entirely respinsible for the diversity America possesses today.

      Since immigrants came in large groups, they settled together in homes in order to keep some sort of stability in their lives. Despite the fact they were in a new country with new values and culture, immigrants from the same country bonded together in order to keep alive some traditions they grew up with. This gradually led, especially in New York City, to the rise of certain areas of town "reserved" for certain cultures. Some examples are China Town, Little Italy, Brighton Beach, and Bensonhurst. Each of these places is renowned for being almsot entirely made up of those people (Brighton Beach for Russian and East European immigrants and Bensonhurst for Italians), and the fact that many products are sold in these places that cater to the people, and aren't sold anywhere else.

The Evolution of Ellis Island: JFK Airport

      John F. Kennedy Airport is the “new Ellis Island,” in which millions of immigrants come each year. Over a few short years, the mode of immigration to New York changed from boats that sail across the Atlantic to planes that fly over it. For many, the first step on solid ground in the United States is that of JFK Airport. Although the mode of immigration and conditions of the journey the immigrants must endure are different compared to a century ago, one thing remain the same: They still must adjust to their new life quickly, for the journey doesn’t end when they reach their destination.

      JFK Airport is located in the southeastern section of Queens County, New York on Jamaica Bay. It consists of 4,930 acres. The original construction cost about $150 million, but since then, the Port Authority has invested over $4.3 billion. Construction on the airport began in April of 1942. The airport opened and had its first commercial flight on July 1, 1948. On July 31, 1948, the airport was formally dedicated as the “New York International Airport.” However, on December 24, 1963, in honor of former President John F. Kennedy, the commissioners of the Port Authority rededicated the airport as the “John F. Kennedy International Airport."


      Since its opening in 1948, the amount of passengers traveling through JFK Airport has increased exponentially. In 1949, only 222,620 passengers departed from and arrived to JFK Airport. In 2005, it was shown that 40,884,350 passengers had passed through JFK Airport. This is perhaps largely due to the shift in mode of immigration. There are also many new redevelopment programs for many of the terminals to accommodate the increasing emigration and immigration such as the American Airlines terminal, the British Airways terminal and the former International Arrivals building.

      The evolution of immigration and technology can be clearly illustrated through JFK Airport. For those immigrants who arrived in Ellis Island, the journey was long and arduous. The immigrants had to endure and support themselves in order to survive. The journey to JFK airport is much easier and more accommodating. JFK Airport even has terminals specifically for airliners of different parts of the world including Air France, Japan Air, British Airways Korean Air American Airlines (both domestic and international), and the new airlines such as Jet Blue.

      Many of the new projects and redevelopments are meant to improve the comfort and safety of the passengers, including the immigrants. A few decades earlier, luxuries like the AirTrain system which provides quick and convenient access between the airport and Manhattan, would have existed. The immigrants of the early 1900’s barely had electricity, much less a private power plant to provide electricity for the entire airport. Even a second parking lot is being built to accommodate the increasing numbers. Other projects funded through the airport include: JFKids Port Childcare Center, which provides a place for children of six weeks to six years to gather and learn in spacious classrooms, the Aviation High School Annex which helps students gain hands-on experience with state-of-the-art aircraft technology, and even four chapels with altars and stained-glass windows.

Foner: The Two Waves of Immigrants

Sophia Chinemerem Eze
General Perception (Myth / Fact).
In what is often perceived as a human inclination to create legends from their ancestoral stories, the first wave of immigrants are generally described as having been very hard working and with more grit than the second wave of immigrants. Also, one tends to think that the second wave of immigrants are more resistant to fitting into the American society (pgs. 2 & 3).

Who They Are:
The old wave of immigrants was predominantly from Europe. The new wave however, is a more diverse mix from Dominican Republic, China, Mexico, Jamaica, etc. Both waves comprised of people who came to America in search of a better life.

Their Work Life. Similarity: Both waves of immigrants upon arrival into New York, often found out that they had to start with menial jobs as the little qualifications they had – if any- were oftentimes not acknowledged when trying to find jobs. Just like their predecessors, majority of the new immigrants were also frequently low skilled and poor. Many end up in jobs other people don’t want. The Majority still are forced to work at the bottom rungs of the work force. Difference: The new wave of immigrants have more educational qualifications, technical skills and a better understanding of the English language than their predecessors.

Where They Live: (pg.68)
The first wave of immigrants were more concerned with ethnic clustering, however, now, they would rather disperse to other places. This sititation seems to be different for the Jews who appear to be more interested in retaining their ethnic values. (which can actually be better attained by living together in a community), than giving into the lures of assimilation.

Immigrant Women and Work
The first wave of immigrants had their women working even at very young ages to support the home.
Similarities: Both groups of women worked.
Differences: The first group primarily often had to work closer to home had fewer skills than the new wave of immigrants. Care was not taken to ensure that the old wave of immigrant women also learned new skills that would enable them to work. The new wave of immigrant women were allowed to work at jobs that were farther from home and they were allowed to be more exposed to men as they worked.

Transnational Ties (pg.178)
There are mostly differences. Unlike the first wave of immigrants that had very limited communication with their homeland, the new wave of immigrants have the necessary advanced technology to keep in touch with the friends and family they left behind. These days, they easily keep in touch with their family by making long distance phone calls and sending e-mails.

In terms of their education (pg.200)....
The new wave of immigrants is undoubtedly more stable in their bid for educational attainment than the old wave. The new immigrants that arrive are more willing and ready to go to high schools upon their arrival than the old wave was. This is the major trend differentiating the old wave of immigrants and the new wave in regards to immigration.

Salim Hasbini
      When comparing the old and new immigrants, we find few similarities. Basically, like in the old days, many due to their lack of education, language skills, and the willingness to take up any job, immigrants old and new still work low-paying, unglamorous jobs, and, to an extent barely make ends meet. Also, due to their willingness to work, many work for illegally low wages since the owners know the worker is glad to have the job in the first place.

      The differences between old and new immigrants are much more apparent. When compared to the old immigrants, new immigrants are much more educated and possess the capability to work more important and skilled jobs. When old immigrants reached the US, they quickly scrambled to grab whatever job they could, no matter what it was. Today, many immigrants come with some form of a college degree, and are therefore less inclined to do unskilled labor. Also, many people have a generally higher view of immigrants than before. People used to see immigrants as poor, uneducated, and unskilled. Nowadays, they are seen in a better light because some (but nowhere near all) have a college education and seek jobs other than unskilled labor. Another difference is the type of jobs available. Back then, old immigrants had a plethora of unskilled jobs to pick from. Many of them ended up working in factories for low wages. In today’s world, things have changed. Many jobs today are more sophisticated then they were several decades ago. Thus, by being an uneducated immigrant, you are at a disadvantage. Since many of these jobs require technical training and skills, the pool of unskilled jobs is no longer as big as it used to be, making it harder for new immigrants to find jobs.

Jonathan Lin
      A major difference between the wave of immigrants today and of the beginning of the last century was the image and depiction of immigrant workers. At the turn of the 20th century, the influx of Jewish and Italian immigrants to Ellis Island contained very few trained professional workers, contributing to the stereotype of the unskilled immigrant. Many of the immigrants were poor and most of the Italian immigrants were illiterate. Although the literacy rate among Jewish immigrants was higher, more than one fourth were still illiterate. When the earlier immigrants arrived, New York was thriving and had much opportunity for economic growth. New York City’s ports controlled almost half of the imports and exports to the United States. In turn, immigrants would have more opportunity to find jobs. Because of the booming economy in New York in the early 1900’s, many corporations grew and began hiring immigrants for low wage factory jobs. In dire need to support themselves, most immigrants took advantage of this opportunity and ended up working in factories, further contributing to the image of the hard-working, unskilled immigrant worker.

      Today’s immigrants are seen as more able and have “a significant number of professional and technical skills” (71). The major difference seen among immigrant laborers today and those of a century ago was the dramatic increase of highly educated and skilled laborers. According to the 1990 census, 16% of New York City’s working-age immigrants have a college degree or higher. A third of the immigrants today can speak fluent English. To the general public, today’s immigrants are though of as better situated than the old immigrants. However, in actuality, this only accounts for a minority of the immigrant population. Many immigrants, like those who came a century before have very little money. Although many more are skilled and educated, the average education is below a 9th grade level. Many of the skills that poorer immigrants possess today would not be of much value to New York City life. For example, some come with fishing, farming, and forestry skills while other groups were often operators or laborers. The technologically advanced age requires people of professional and educated background. It is increasingly difficult for immigrants to find jobs, especially well-paying jobs without the proper skills.

      The similarities between the two waves of immigrant workers are very few. Sweatshops and ethnic businesses still exist. There is still a significant gap between the rich and poor. The majority of new immigrants are uneducated and unskilled, thus to support themselves, they are forced into jobs that no one else wants. Often, they are paid the minimum wage and in many cases today, even less. Because of illiteracy, no education and the desperate need of immigrants to find any job leads many businesses to take advantage of their situation and pay extremely low wages, far below the legal limit.


Chinemerem Sophia Eze [[1]]
Salim Hasbini [[2]]
Jonathan Lin [[3]]

  1. "Ellis Island History"
  2. "Statue of Liberty: History"