Ellis Island – United States Immigration

What is Ellis Island?
Ellis Island was the first Federal immigration station in the United States. Before Ellis Island, immigration was handled by the individual states. When mass immigration from Europe began in the late 1800s, President Benjamin Harrison stepped in and took control of the process in 1890, building the first station at Ellis Island. Considered the gateway to America, the station was used to process and inspect immigrants as they arrived in the United States, assuring they were healthy and legally able to enter the country.

Where is Ellis Island?
Ellis Island is located in the New York Harbor between New York and New Jersey. The state border between the two states has been disputed, resulting in shared jurisdiction over Ellis Island, though it is ultimately Federal property.

The natural portion of Ellis Island is only 3.3 acres, but the land area was expanded to 27.5 acres for the construction of the immigration station, and then for its expansion. The island was expanded with landfill, which partially came from displaced dirt from the construction of New York’s subway system.

When was Ellis Island used as an immigration station?
Ellis Island opened on January 1, 1892. The first immigrant processed at Ellis Island was 15 year old Annie Moore who arrived from Ireland along with her brothers. The children traveled to the United States to reunite with their parents, who had arrived before them.

The original inspection station operated for five more years before burning down. A new fire-proof station was built, opening on December 17, 1900.

Ellis Island’s inspection station closed in 1954, after an estimated total of twelve million immigrants had been processed there.

How were immigrants processed once they arrived at Ellis Island?
Immigrants who traveled first or second class on their journey to the United States usually were able to pass through inspection without hassle, based on the fact that they could afford to travel first or second class, meaning they were less likely to have medical issues or cause other problems.

Immigrants traveling third class (called steerage) endured harsh conditions in cramped quarters for the duration of their journey, and once they arrived in New York, they were sent to Ellis Island to undergo medical and legal inspections. The inspection process normally took around three to five hours. Doctors performed what became known as the “six-second medical exam,” looking for signs of health problems and diseases. When doctors saw signs of medical issues, those people would receive thorough examinations before being permitted to continue the immigration process.

The legal portion of the inspection involved confirming that the immigrants were legally allowed to come to America, and assuring that they were not indentured servants and had no criminal background. Later, immigrants were required to have a passport, visa, and pass a literacy test before entering the country.

From 1909, immigrants were required to have at least $20 to be allowed entry, to ensure their ability to be successful in their new home.

Though for most people, the process only took a few hours, about 20% of immigrants were required to stay overnight, or longer, in dormitories in order to clear processing.

Only a small percentage of immigrants were denied entrance into the United States, usually due to severe health issues or evidence of legal issues. Once denied entrance, the steamship company on which the immigrants traveled was required to transport them back to their country of origin.

What was Ellis Island’s role during World War I and II?
Ellis Island served primarily as a detention center during the World Wars, holding enemies of war primarily from Germany, Italy, Japan, who were suspected to be spies. The station functioned as a deportation processing center at this time, while it continued to process immigration during the war.

The United States Military also used Ellis Island during the wars to send sick or wounded servicemen to receive treatment at its medical facilities.

Where did most of the immigrants who came through Ellis Island originate?
The top places of origin were Italy, Germany, Russia, Ireland, England, Scandinavia, and Poland.

What is Ellis Island’s relationship to the Statue of Liberty?
A gift and demonstration of friendship from France to the United States, the Statue of Liberty represents freedom and democracy, which made it a fitting monument to welcome immigrants upon their arrival to the United States. The Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, just a few years before Ellis Island Immigration Station opened. It became a National Monument in 1924.

Ellis Island became part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965, declared by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

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Last Updated on: September 28th, 2017