Ellis Island is an island on the New York Harbor area close to the Statue of Liberty. From 1892 to 1954, it was the main gateway for millions of immigrants into the United States.
Back then, immigrants arrived in ships from Europe, and the lower class passengers where taken by ferry boats to Ellis Island to be processed. Generally, those immigrants who were approved spent from two to five hours at Ellis Island. Arrivals were asked 29 questions including name, occupation, and the amount of money carried. It was important to the American government that the new arrivals could support themselves and have money to get started. The average the government wanted the immigrants to have was between 18 and 25 dollars. Those with visible health problems or diseases were sent home or held in the island’s hospital facilities for long periods of time. More than three thousand would-be immigrants died on Ellis Island while being held in the hospital facilities. Some unskilled workers were rejected because they were considered “likely to become a public charge”. About 2 percent were denied admission to the U.S. and sent back to their countries of origin for reasons such as having a chronic contagious disease, criminal background, or insanity. Ellis Island was sometimes known as “The Island of Tears” because of those 2% who were not admitted after the long transatlantic voyage.
After the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, which greatly restricted immigration and allowed processing at overseas embassies, the only immigrants to pass through the station were displaced persons or war refugees. Today, over 100 million Americans – one third of the population – can trace their ancestry to the immigrants who first arrived in America at Ellis Island before dispersing to points all over the country.
I visited the Ellis Island a couple of weeks ago after I visited the Statue of Liberty. The ferry that goes to the Statue of Liberty makes a stop at Ellis Island before heading back to the pier. For many visitors, especially those who don’t necessarily have any ancestors who went through Ellis Island, may pass the visit to Ellis Island as just an old historical building to visit when you have extra time. My first visit to Ellis Island few years back was only to take some photos from the exterior of the building. This time I decided to actually spend some time to learn about the history behind the island.
While I couldn’t relate from the perspective of having ancestors who came through Ellis Island, I could relate from the perspective of being an immigrant who came from another country and stayed as a resident. I remembered going through the modern equivalent of the interview and inspection process; for me, it happened at the US Embassy in Indonesia when I went for interviews during the visa application process.
The photo below was taken inside the Main Hall where the immigration processing was done. The hall looked empty today, but imagine the huge hall filled with rows of seats where immigrants waited to get processed. Once the processing was done, at the end of the hall there were stairs with three lines: one line for approved immigrants who were heading to New York City area, another line for other approved immigrants who are heading to destinations outside New York City, and a third line for questionable immigrants who needed to be processed further (e.g., due to possible health issues). These were nicknamed the Stairs of Separation as some family might have members who had to stay while others were approved to leave, so they had to make quick decision whether to stay together as a family, or separate and leave someone behind.