From 1892 to 1954, over 12 million immigrants (steerage and third class steamship passengers) entered the United States from Ellis Island, a small island in New York Harbor located just off the New Jersey coast, within the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. The immigrants were legally and medically inspected at Ellis Island. From a sandy island that barely rose above high tide, it developed into a hang-ing site for pirates, a harbor fort, ammunition depot and finally into an immigration station in 1890.
As the British naval fleet was able to sail directly into New York Harbor during the Revolutionary War, the U.S. government decided to buy the island from New York and built a series of coastal fortifications in the harbor before the War of 1812. Prior to 1890, the individual states regulated immigration into the United States. Castle Garden served as New York state immigration station from 1855 to 1890. Throughout the 1800s, 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.
The U.S. government intervened and constructed a new federal immigration station on Ellis Island that opened in 1892. A 15 year-old from Ireland named Annie Moore and her two brothers were the first immigrants to be processed at Ellis Island. Millions more were to follow.
In 1897, a fire on Ellis Island burned the immigration station to the ground. Although no lives were lost, many years of federal and state immigration records burned along with the pine buildings. The U.S. Treasury quickly ordered the facility rebuilt under one important condition. All future structures on Ellis Island had to be fireproof. In December of 1900, the new Main Building was opened and 2,251 immigrants were received that day.
While most immigrants entered through New York Harbor, the most popular destination of steamship companies, others sailed into ports such as Boston, San Francisco and Savannah. First and second-class passengers who arrived in New York were not required to undergo the inspection process unless they were sick or had legal problems. These passengers underwent a cursory inspection aboard ship, the theory being that if people could afford to purchase a first or second-class ticket, they were less likely to become a public charge. The government felt that more affluent passengers would not end up in institutions, hospitals or become a burden to the state.
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 crossings. Upon arrival in New York City, first and second class passengers would disembark, pass through Customs 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 immigrants' 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, 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 goiter to varicose veins) just by glancing at an immigrant. The ship's manifest log 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 inspection. The two agencies responsible for processing immigrants at Ellis Island were the United States Public Health Service and the United States Bureau of Immigration (now known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service - INS).
A vast majority of immigrants were treated courteously and respectfully and were free to begin their new lives in America after a few short hours on Ellis Island. Only two percent of the arriving immigrants were excluded from entry, usually if a doctor diagnosed 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 1900s, immigration was on the rise and in 1907, approximately 1.25 million immigrants were processed at Ellis Island. Hospital buildings, dormitories, disease wards and kitchens were all feverishly constructed between 1900 and 1915 in a constant struggle to meet this greater than anticipated influx.
As the United States entered World War I, immigration to the United States decreased. Suspected enemy aliens in the United States were brought to Ellis Island under custody. In 1918 and 1919, detained suspected enemy aliens were transferred from Ellis Island to other locations in order for the U. S. Navy and the Army Medical Department to take over the complex for the duration of the war. During this time, 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 the country and thousands of suspected alien radicals were interred at Ellis Island. Hundreds were later deported based upon guilt by association with any organization advocating revolution against the government.
In 1920 Ellis Island reopened as an immigration station and 225,206 immigrants were processed that year. From the beginning of the mass migration from 1880 to 1924, an increasingly vociferous group of politicians and nativists demanded increased restrictions on immigration. Laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, Alien Contract Labor Law and the institution of a literacy test barely stemmed the flood tide of new immigrants. The death knell for Ellis Island immigration began between with the passage of Quota Laws in 1921 and the passage of the National Origins Act in 1924. 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.
After World War I, prospective immigrants began applying for their visas at American consulates in their countries of origin. The necessary paperwork and a medical inspection were conducted there. After 1924 the only people detained at Ellis Island were those who had problems with their paperwork, as well as war refugees and displaced persons. During World War II, enemy merchant seamen were detained. The U.S. Coast Guard also trained about 60,000 servicemen there. In 1954 the last detainee, a Norwegian merchant seaman named Arne Petersen was released, and Ellis Island closed.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. It was opened to the public on a limited basis from 1976 to 1984. Starting in 1984 Ellis Island underwent a major restoration. The $162 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 in 1990 as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Today, the museum receives almost 2 million visitors annually.