How Ellis Island shepherded millions of immigrants into America

Entrance through this New York immigration epicenter usually took only a few hours—no passports or visas required.

Photograph by William Williams, New York Public Library
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In the main hall of the immigration station on Ellis Island, immigrants wait for the next phase of inspection. On some days, more than 5,000 people filled this room.

Photograph by William Williams, New York Public Library

Sixty-five years ago, on November 12, 1954, a Norwegian merchant seaman named Arne Peterssen became the last immigrant to pass through Ellis Island. Later that month, the ferry Ellis Island made its final stop at the island in New York Harbor and the immigration facility closed for good, ending its run as a gateway to the United States for generations of immigrants.

These days Ellis Island is a national symbol remembered in sepia tones, but while it was in active service the station reflected the country’s complicated relationship with immigration—one that evolved from casual openness to rigid restriction. “It was not a great welcoming place for immigrants, but it was not a place of horrors either,” says Vincent Cannato, author of American Passage: The History of Ellis Island.

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Women and children were separated from men when they first entered the building on Ellis Island.

Until the end of the 19th century, individual states handled immigration with rules varying by jurisdiction. But then immigration soared. “From 1880 to 1889 [it] was just massive,” says Barry Moreno, librarian and historian at the Statue of Liberty National Monument and author of the Encyclopedia of Ellis Island. “Never before had the country ever received such numbers.” In light of the influx, the federal government decided in 1891 that it had to take charge.

New York was immigration’s epicenter. Some 75 percent of the country’s steamship traffic came through New York Harbor—and so did 75 percent of the nation’s immigrants, according to Cannato. New York state ran an immigration facility called Castle Gardens at the tip of Manhattan, but the new federal Office of Immigration wanted an intake and inspection station in a more controlled location. It selected Ellis Island, a three-acre spot of land in the harbor between New York and New Jersey, but before it could open the island had to be doubled in size with landfill.

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Crowded ferries transported immigrants from transatlantic steamships to Ellis Island.

The demographics of immigration had changed drastically in the decades before Ellis Island opened. Where once most immigrants came from western and northern Europe and were predominantly Protestant, after the Civil War they began to come from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Italy—and they were Jewish and Catholic, fleeing pogroms and poverty. (See 200 years of U.S. immigration visualized.)

Some Americans wondered how the influx would affect the country’s character, says Moreno. “These were strange countries to many people,”

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An immigrant boy helps carry luggage on Ellis Island.

Even so, during the early decades of federal control there were few restrictions on who could enter the country (except for Chinese immigrants, who were effectively banned by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). The U.S. government made it clear that they would not welcome anarchists, polygamists, criminals, or anyone who was sick, had loose morals, or couldn’t support themselves. At the same time, however, neither visas, passports, nor any other documentation were required, and there weren’t limits on how many people could enter the country. (Here's the history of the U.S. passport.)

The immigrants who eventually passed through Ellis Island started their journey by buying passage on a steamship, usually sailing from Europe. The steamship companies were encouraged to thoroughly screen passengers to ensure health, good character, and financial solvency: If they didn’t, they’d be fined $100 for every person who was refused entry into the U.S. and have to pay for the rejected immigrant’s return voyage.

Ships steaming into New York Harbor would be met by a small boat from Ellis Island carrying immigration inspectors, who would board to quickly examine the first and second-class passengers, many of whom were not immigrants. Passengers free of obvious diseases and whose answers matched the information on the ship manifest would be allowed to disembark when the ship docked at one of the city’s piers.

All third-class and steerage passengers, on the other hand, were put on a ferry to Ellis Island, where women and children were separated in one line and men in the other. The lines would snake through the Great Hall as the new arrivals proceeded through an assembly line of cursory medical examinations conducted by uniformed doctors.

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Doctors performed quick examinations on Ellis Island, which included flipping over eyelids to inspect for trachoma, a contagious eye disease.

“Most had no problem with the medical examination,” says Moreno, “even though they were frightened.” Many of the immigrants had never been to a doctor before.

If a medical condition was discovered, the person’s clothing would be marked with a chalk letter and they’d be ushered into what was called the “doctor’s pen” where they would be confined until they could be more thoroughly examined.

Once that gauntlet was passed, immigrants proceeded upstairs where a line of inspectors awaited, each with a section of the ship’s manifest. Immigrants wore tags with the name of the ship they’d sailed on and the page number where they appeared on the manifest. Inspectors would quiz immigrants to make sure the information on the manifest—including their race, as defined then, and how much money they carried—matched their answers. If it did, they were free to go. (Will climate change swamp the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island?)

Between 1892 and 1924, 12 million people successfully traversed this highly efficient conveyor-belt immigration system. Most immigrants were processed through Ellis Island in a few hours, and only 2 percent that arrived on the island were prevented from entering the United States.

What "Lady Liberty" and Ellis Island Mean Today

A visit to Ellis Island today, and to the nearby Statue of Liberty, can be emotional, even for those born in the United States.

But this era of mass immigration came to an end with the passage in 1921 and 1924 of new laws that severely limited immigration by establishing quotas for individual countries and requiring immigrants to obtain visas from American consulates. Quotas were designed to reflect ethnic diversities recorded in earlier U.S. censuses, as way to restrict the numbers of people of southern and eastern Europe. People “forget the intense prejudice and discrimination that immigrants from Europe faced,” says Nancy Foner, a sociologist who serves on Ellis Island’s history advisory committee.

Since most official immigration screening now happened at U.S. consulates abroad, Ellis Island became increasingly irrelevant. The facility, which had once teemed with thousands of hopeful immigrants, transformed into “a major center for deportation and for holding enemy alien spies,” says Moreno. “It was like night and day.” President Eisenhower quietly closed Ellis Island in 1954.

Today many immigrants arrive by airplane with a visa already stamped in their passport. Meanwhile, the descendants of the people who arrived at Ellis Island account for nearly half of all American citizens alive today, according to one estimate. (Read more about the some 55 million Europeans who sought new lives in the U.S. and South America.)

“It took a couple of generations for people to move up and become accepted,” says Foner. “In a sense, it’s a hopeful story.”