More than 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954—with a whopping 1,004,756 entering the United States in 1907 alone, its busiest year. And yet, even during these days of peak immigration, for most passengers hoping to establish new lives in the United States, the process of entering the country was over and done relatively quickly—in a matter of a few hours.
The passengers disembarking ships at the gateway station in 1907 were arriving due to a number of factors, including a strong domestic economy and pogrom outbreaks of violence against Jews in the Russian Empire, says Vincent Cannato, associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and author of American Passage: The History of Ellis Island.
“It varied from person to person, but for 80 percent, the process took a few hours, and then they were out and through,” he says. “But it could also take a couple days, a couple weeks, a couple months or, in some very rare cases, a couple of years.”
Barry Moreno, historian and librarian at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, says most Ellis Island passengers in 1907 came from Europe, with Italians comprising the largest number of immigrants. He says a passenger manifest document, written in script, was created from the point of departure, which included each passenger’s name, age, occupation, destination and other information. “This document would be crucially important when the immigrants got to New York,” he says.
The process went something like this: Before the ship was allowed to enter into New York Harbor, according to Moreno, it had to stop at a quarantine checkpoint off the coast of Staten Island where doctors would look for dangerous contagious diseases such as smallpox, yellow fever, plague, cholera and leprosy. Once the ship passed inspection, immigration officers began boarding the ship via rope ladders, before it docked.
“They had to start immigration procedures really fast because there were so many passengers—often as many as 2,000 to 3,000 passengers from all classes,” Moreno says. “You could have as many as 1,500 passengers in third class alone.”
First- and second-class passengers (billionaires, stage stars, merchants, businessmen and the like) were interviewed and allowed to disembark once the ship docked. “Now, in 1907, no passports or visas were needed to enter the United States,” he says. “In fact, no papers were required at all. This was a paperless period. All you had to do was verbally give information to the official when you boarded ship in Europe and that information was the only information used when they arrived.”
Steerage passengers, who were given manifest tags so that inspectors could find their information with ease, were then confronted by U.S. customs officers, who would quickly check bags for dutiable goods or contraband. The passengers were then put aboard small steamboats and brought to Ellis Island. “The boats would carry 700, 800, even 1,000 passengers,” Moreno says. “The passengers would be ordered to form two separate lines; one of women and children, including boys under the age of 15, and one of men, with as many as 10,000 passengers and several steam ships arriving per day.”
First up, was a medical examination performed by military surgeons, according to Moreno. “Because they were dressed as military men, it often puzzled and confused immigrants, who were mostly peasants, poor Jews or small townspeople,” he says. “They didn’t understand who these men were. They thought they were policemen or soldiers. But as these long, long endless lines formed, the doctors had to examine everyone, as quickly as possible, for eye disease, skin disorders, heart disease and more.”
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The doctors also had to know a few words of instruction in many languages. “Most of the immigrants were illiterate even in their own languages,” Moreno notes. “And by 1907, the doctors had already developed a secret code system using a piece of chalk. They would mark the passenger’s clothes with a letter of the alphabet: ‘H’ indicated heart trouble suspected; ‘L’ suspected lameness; ‘X’ suspected feeble-mindedness, and so on.”
Those marked, Moreno says, were removed from the line and “taken across the room where you were locked in a pen, a cage, called the doctor’s pen” until the doctors were free to continue further examinations or questioning.
“Only about 10 percent of people were detained for this kind of questioning,” he says. “Ninety percent got through this line of questioning without any problem. Why? Partly because the doctors knew there wasn’t enough space to detain too many people.”
Next, immigrants were filtered into long lines to be interviewed by inspectors (often with the help of interpreters). “The inspector would verify the passenger manifest by rereading the information provided,” Moreno says. “If everything was OK, he would just make a little check mark by your name, but if your answers were bad, wrong or suspicious, or if secret information had arrived about you previous to your arrival, your name was marked with an ‘X’ and you were told you would be detained.”
“Detention meant you could be held overnight, and you would sleep in dormitory rooms and you would be fed three meals a day in the immigrants’ dining room,” Moreno says. “You would be forced to stay at Ellis Island until something was resolved, such as being wired money or being able to provide an address.” He says serious detention cases, which were rare, could be designated for almost any reason but usually had something to do with questions of morality (if, for example, a woman was pregnant and unmarried) or criminal accusations. “They were looking for suspected anarchists, persons who were politically dangerous and contract laborers—immigrants who were being brought in to break strikes.”
Cannato says detention all depended on the individual case. “What often caused a case to take longer would be appeals,” he says. “If the officials at Ellis Island rejected your case you could appeal it all the way to Washington, D.C., but of course that takes time and often would take a few weeks to make it through the bureaucracy before a decision was handed down.”
If you weren’t held, you were immediately released, with most immigrants passing through Ellis Island in three to five hours with no overnight stays or meals served, Moreno says. “If they wanted a meal, they could go downstairs to the lunchroom where the restaurant keeper sold boxed lunches: a large box for $1, a small box for 50 cents. In the box was a sandwich, pie and an apple. The only free food was given to detainees held forcibly overnight.”
Just 2 percent of immigrants at Ellis Island were denied entry to the United States. “The great contradiction or irony here is that you have a massive inspection process, and you have this restrictionist sentiment and all these people you want to keep out of the country and, at the end of the day, less than 2 percent are rejected,” Cannato says. “At end of day, the process was not really to keep lots of people out; the goal really was to sift out the wheat from the chaff and sift out those who were ‘undesirable.’”
And those who passed inspection were simply sent on their way with no official paperwork. “It’s a hard thing to wrap your mind around because we live in such a bureaucratic world today,” Cannato adds. “We have passports, birth certificates and all sorts of documents. There was no, ‘Welcome to America, here’s your new photo ID.’”