The Doorway to New York and America closes and new windows had to open.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, 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!”
The New Colossus | Emma Lazarus
This poem commemorating the Statue of Liberty contains the familiar closing stanzas most are familiar with in regard to our immigration policy. An important site near the Statue is the subject of today’s #HistoryMonday.
On this day in 1954, The immigrant processing center on Ellis Island was closed and would remain closed for three decades until renovation efforts were begun to commemorate its significance.
The immigration center was built on January 2, 1892. Ellis Island had been designated as America’s first federal immigration center by President Benjamin Harrison two years earlier. Before 1890, each state was tasked with the responsibility of vetting and determine eligibility for legal immigrant status. Annie Moore, a 15-year-old from Ireland, became the first person to pass through the newly opened immigration center.
Contrary to popular opinion, not all immigrants who sailed into New York had to go through Ellis Island. First- and second-class passengers were evaluated on board the ships and were directed with their paperwork to customs at the piers where they disembarked. Third class passengers were transported to Ellis Island, for medical and legal inspections to ensure they didn’t have a contagious disease or some condition that would make them a burden to the government. Only two percent of all immigrants were denied entrance into the U.S. Much of the rejection was fueled by scientific beliefs of the time we know as eugenics. These beliefs and practices of promoting the healthiest population were championed by Progressives like Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger and eventually the Nazi party in Germany.
Immigration to Ellis Island peaked between 1892 and 1924 and additional buildings were constructed to handle the massive influx of immigrants. During the busiest year of operation, 1907, over 1 million people were processed at Ellis Island.
Oddly enough, much of the records provided to the Ellis Island Immigration center were not necessarily provided by the governments of the immigrants’ former homelands. The initial paperwork for the application was not official paperwork from the U.S. Bureau of Immigration, but by the steamship passenger manifests.
As America’s isolationist approach to World War I grew, immigration declined, and Ellis Island was used as a detention center for suspected enemies. Following the war, Congress passed quota laws and the Immigration Act of 1924, which sharply reduced the number of newcomers allowed into the country and also enabled immigrants to be processed at U.S. consulates abroad. After 1924, Ellis Island switched from a processing center to serving other purposes, such as a detention and deportation center for illegal immigrants, a hospital for wounded soldiers during World War II and a Coast Guard training center. In November 1954, the last detainee, a Norwegian merchant seaman, was released and Ellis Island officially closed.
Beginning in 1984, Ellis Island underwent a $160 million renovation, the largest historic restoration project in U.S. history. In September 1990, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened to the public and today is visited by almost 2 million people each year. The museum was incorporated into a joint National Monument with Liberty Island by Pres. Lyndon Johnson in 1965. A year later they would be organized as a National Historic District a year later.
We’ve seen the expansion of more federal immigration processing centers since the closing of Ellis Island in 1954. Additionally, the government organizations in charge of processing the immigration claims have thankfully abandoned much of the eugenic disqualifiers and the information submitted is generally provided by foreign authorities in the applicants’ homelands.
We’ve seen Pres. Trump and other Presidents over the last few decades question our immigration process. I could understand the outrage over immigrants being processed based on passenger lists submitted by a Central American version of Carnival® cruise lines. While we are a nation of immigrants, there will always be some sort of evaluation system for those hoping to enter our country. The process should not be onerous, but it should include at least some due diligence. Obviously there has been a shift in attitudes about how our nation handles immigration in the last few decades, many immigrants were detained on Ellis Island for evidence of criminal activity in their origin countries and others remained in the Ellis Island Hospital to quarantine them from spreading contagious diseases.
The dedication of Ellis Island as a museum is significant for celebrating the process of immigration to our country. Nearly 40 percent of Americans can trace their roots to Ellis Island even today. My father attempted to verify this when we visited Ellis Island in 2003 but wasn’t able to find the records. Likely, this is due to much of the history being anecdotal and not necessarily official. For what it’s worth, my father’s paternal roots of immigration are well researched and exist from the Colonial Era of America. My mother’s maternal roots are similar and exist before the Colonial Era as well. Sadly, her paternal roots end with her great-grandfather and nothing else has been able to be proven. Maybe Ancestry.com or 23AndMe might shed some light on the missing heritage.
Do you have proof of your ancestors being processed at Ellis Island?