Encoun­ter­ing Ellis Island: How Euro­pean Immi­grants Entered America

Ronald H. Bayor
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By – December 5, 2014

With a ris­ing demand for farm and indus­tri­al work­ers, Amer­i­ca opened its por­tals to approx­i­mate­ly 20 mil­lion immi­grants between 1892 and 1924. Four­teen mil­lion of these new, main­ly Euro­pean arrivals entered through Ellis Island, which had replaced the aging Cas­tle Gar­den facil­i­ty locat­ed at the Bat­tery on the New York City shore. In his detailed and engross­ing nar­ra­tive of those years, his­to­ri­an Ronald H. Bay­or offers an eye-lev­el account of the per­ilous jour­ney to Ellis Island.” While he main­ly depicts the par­tic­u­lars of this ear­ly-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry moment, he still points to the eerie con­ti­nu­ity between that time and twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. Bay­or observes that two ide­o­log­i­cal views shaped U.S. immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy and still play a role in con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­ca.” On the one hand, a pos­i­tive spir­it of civic national­ism” wel­comed diver­si­ty” and promised equal­i­ty and fair­ness to all who came to the Unit­ed States.” On the oth­er hand, Ellis Island and espe­cial­ly Angel Island on the West Coast could also sig­ni­fy an oppos­ing spir­it of crude nativism, big­otry, and racial nationalism.” 

Bayor’s his­tor­i­cal study is part of the promis­ing new How Things Worked” series pub­lished by Johns Hop­kins. The series can appeal to an under­grad­u­ate as well as a gen­er­al audi­ence. Its aim is to trace and recon­struct the actu­al human expe­ri­ence of his­tor­i­cal events and move­ments. Bay­or thus wants to answer a spe­cif­ic ques­tion: What hap­pened to the immi­grants along the jour­ney to Ellis Island, and how did the pro­cess­ing of so many peo­ple work?” He wants read­ers to walk through the whole immi­gra­tion pro­ce­dure, pic­ture them­selves as one of the immi­grants or staff, and get a sense of how it felt to be there.” The author skill­ful­ly real­izes this aim by clear­ly orga­niz­ing his account of the immi­gra­tion process. Bay­or adds to his text by includ­ing illu­mi­nat­ing pho­tographs of the Ellis Island expe­ri­ence culled from pub­lic and nation­al archives. 

What espe­cial­ly emerges in these pages is an image of the new­com­ers’ frag­ile vulner­ability. With per­ni­cious eugenic cri­te­ria” often sway­ing inspec­tors and med­ical staff, an aspir­ing immi­grant could be reject­ed for poor pos­ture or physique. Israel Bosak, for exam­ple, escaped Russ­ian pogroms in 1906, but was turned away at Ellis Island since his physi­cal degen­er­a­cy” could threat­en Amer­i­ca in rela­tion to his prog­e­ny.” Immi­gra­tion commis­sioner William Williams, in 1912, con­trast­ed North­ern Euro­peans with the back­ward races” from South­ern and East­ern Europe. In an arti­cle titled Inva­sion of the Unfit,” Williams warned against the entry of these lumps of poi­so­nous leav­en.” Such implaca­ble prej­u­dice was matched by the per­sis­tent crim­i­nal­i­ty vic­tim­iz­ing immi­grants from the moment of their depar­ture. A for­tu­nate few were able to book sec­ond or even first class pas­sage, which offered some ini­tial pro­tec­tion. Nev­er­the­less, once com­plet­ing the exhaust­ing inspec­tion process at Ellis Island, the new arrivals were essen­tial­ly released into a mob of indi­vid­u­als bent on cheat­ing and swin­dling them in one way or another.” 

Bay­or then care­ful­ly por­trays the dif­fer­ent ways Amer­i­ca respond­ed to the new arrivals. Author­i­ties were always wary of poten­tial char­i­ty” cas­es, and every immi­grant was sub­ject to strict sur­veil­lance dur­ing a three-year pro­ba­tion­ary peri­od. Still, the rate of rejec­tion was just two per­cent, and there was an effort to respect the indi­vid­u­al­i­ty and rights of the new­com­ers. By 1911 Ellis Island pro­vid­ed in­terpreters in thir­ty-sev­en lan­guages, and such lan­guages as Yid­dish, Hun­gar­i­an, and Ital­ian were spe­cial require­ments for the inter­preters. One com­mis­sion­er of Ellis Island even warned against mis­sion­ary” activ­i­ty direct­ed toward the Hebrew immi­grants.” He cau­tioned that Chris­t­ian tracts-print­ed in Hebrew” should no longer be put into their hands.” 

Nev­er­the­less, a very vehe­ment part of Amer­i­can pub­lic opin­ion held fast to the rigid ide­ol­o­gy of nativist suprema­cy. In Bayor’s view, Pres­i­dent Calvin Coolidge for­mal­ized these views with the enforce­ment of racial quo­tas and the sign­ing of the Nation­al Ori­gins Act in 1924. In a sad­ly reveal­ing essay titled Whose Coun­try is This?” Coolidge expressed a prefer­ence for Nordic immi­grants and dis­plea­sure at the idea of inter­mar­riage among Nordics and so-called infe­ri­or groups.“ Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes, photos.

Relat­ed content:

Peter E. Korn­blum holds a Ph.D. in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berkeley.He taught Eng­lish in the High School Divi­sion of the New York City Depart­ment ofE­d­u­ca­tion from 1981 through 2007.

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