The Immigrant Experience

Sam Luna

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Ellis Island Overview

Ellis Island was the principal federal immigration station in America from 1892-1954, where over 12 million immigrants were processed. The station eventually spread over 3 connected islands over time, containing numerous hospitals and contagious disease wards. "It is estimated that over 40 percent of all citizens can trace their ancestry to those who came through Ellis Island." When Ellis Island first opened, when the greatest number of immigrants entered, it mirrored the United State's "generous attitude and open door policy." But, after the passage of immigration laws in the 1920s, it was used as more of a closed door for "assembly, detainment, and deporting aliens." Entering immigrants were required to undergo and pass a series of medical and legal inspections before they could enter. It was often nerve wracking, the actual experience of going through the inspection or detainment of crossing through. If you did not pass these inspections, you were usually returned to your country of origin by way of the boats that brought you to America. The small 2 percent of those who could not pass through translated to over 250,000 people turned away.

The Registry Room

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Almost every day for over two decades (1900-1924), the Registry Room filled with hopeful arrivals waiting to be inspected and registered by Immigration Service officers. Sometimes over 10,000 people would be lined through here in a single 24-hour period. This hall greatly epitomized Ellis Island for most immigrants. In the Registry Room, "they encountered the complex demands of the immigration laws and an American bureaucracy that could either grant or withhold permission to land in the United States."

The Journey

Most of the immigrants sailing to America were fleeing religious persecution, political oppression, and economic hardships. Thousands arrived daily on steamships from mostly Eastern and Southern Europe. First and second class passengers were allowed to pass inspection on the boat and go straight to shore. Steerage passengers had to take the ferry to Ellis Island for inspection. For all, however, it meant days and sometimes months aboard overcrowded ships travelling through severe weather. "Substandard food and sanitation conditions only compounded the misery for many who had become sick aboard these ships."
"We were put on a barge, jammed in so tight that I couldn't turn 'round, there were so many of us, you see, and the stench was terrible. And when we got to Ellis Island, they put the gangplank down, and there was a man at the foot, and he was shouting, at the top of his voice, '"Put your luggage here, drop your luggage here. Men this way. Women and children this way."' Dad looked at us and said, '", we'll meet you back here at this mound of luggage and hope we find it again and see you later."' --Eleanor Kenderdine Lenhart, English immigrant in 1921.

Medical Inspection

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Medical Inspection began as soon as immigrants stepped foot on the stairway to the Registry Room. The United States Public Health Service doctors at the top of the stairs would carefully watch for signs of heart trouble or shortness of breath as immigrants hauled their baggage up, which sometimes only took about six seconds. If a doctor found any issues, they would mark the shoulder or lapel of an immigrants clothing with chalk: For example, "E" for eyes or "H" for heart. Ones who were marked, especially those with several, were removed from inspection lines and taken to special examination rooms. There, a doctor would test for the ailment(s) marked and give a quick overall physical. Many were sent to hospitals for observation and care. If a patient recovered, they were allowed to land (usually). Those whose ailments were incurable or disabling were sent back to their ports of origin.


Female Patients: Many immigrant women were frightened by Ellis Island's clinical routine. For example, women being examined by male doctors, being touched by men other than their husbands, could be a traumatic experience. However, in 1914, two female doctors were appointed to the medical staff. "Prior to that, Public Health Service rules required the presence of a matron during the examination of an immigrant woman by a male doctor."


Trachoma: A highly contagious infection that could cause blindness, known as Trachoma, was common in southeastern Europe, but barely known in the United States. Doctors checked for this disease by raising the eyelid with either their fingers, a hairpin, or buttonhook -- painful, but quick. Because Trachoma was so difficult to cure, those who were infected were generally isolated and sent back to their ports of origin.


Medical inspection cards that recorded the health history of an immigrant while on board the ship were presented to Ellis Island physicians for final examination. If the immigrant was in good health, the card was stamped "passed."

Legal Inspection

After medial inspection, immigrants were sent towards the inspector's desk at the far end of the Registry Room for their legal examination, which was often compared to the Day of Judgement. "To determine an immigrant's social, economic, and moral fitness, inspectors asked rapid-fire series of questions, such as: Are you married or single? What is your occupation? How much money do you have? Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" After the short interrogation, an immigrant was either permitted to enter or detained for legal hearing.

Literacy Test

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Since the 1880s, as a means of restricting immigration, anti-immigration forces had been trying to impose a literacy test. Success came with the Immigration Act of 1917, which passed over President Woodrow Wilson's veto. "This law required all immigrants, 16 years or older, to read a 40-word passage in their native language."

Final Freedom

After all of the inspections and permission to leave Ellis Island, immigrants could make final arrangements for travel to their destinations, get something to eat, and exchange their currency for American money. Only about one-third of immigrants actually stayed in New York City. "The majority scattered to all points across the country via a railroad that crisscrossed the entire continent and offered easy access to all of America's major cities."

Angel Island

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