Mt. Carmel High School


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Millions of Americans have made the United States the most multicultural nation in the world. From the time Ellis Island opened in upper New York harbor near the Statue of Liberty in 1892 to the time it closed in 1954, it served as the portal for the vast majority of new immigrants.

Historical Overview
Ellis Island was the principal federal immigration station in the United States from 1892 to 1954. More than 12 million immigrants were processed here. Over time, the immigration station spread over 3 connected islands with numerous structures including a hospital and contagious disease wards. It is estimated that over 40 percent of all citizens can trace their ancestry to those who came through Ellis Island. In its early years, when the greatest number of immigrants entered the country, Ellis Island mirrored the nation's generous attitude and open door policy. After passage of immigration laws in the 1920s, it was used more for "assembly, detainment, and deporting aliens," and symbolized a closing door. Immigrants were required to pass a series of medical and legal inspections before they could enter America. The actual experience of going through inspection or detainment on Ellis Island was often nerve wracking. Those who did not pass these inspections were returned to their country of origin on the boats that brought them here. Even though only 2 percent of those coming to America were turned away at Ellis Island, that translated to over 250,000 people whose hopes and dreams turned to tears .

The Registry Room
Nearly every day for over two decades (1900-1924) the Registry Room teemed with hopeful arrivals waiting to be inspected and registered by Immigration Service officers. As the tide of immigration swelled, sometimes over 10,000 people would file through this space in a single 24-hour period. For most immigrants, this great hall epitomized Ellis Island. Here they encountered the complex demands of the immigration laws and an American bureaucracy that could either grant or withhold permission to land in the United States.

In 1954, Ellis Island closed and was virtually abandoned until 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson added it to the Statue of Liberty National Monument under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. The restoration of Ellis Island began in 1983 and the immigration museum opened in 1990, with the building being restored to the period of 1918-1920. Ellis Island exists today as a testament to the vital importance of immigration in shaping America and to the millions of people who passed through its doors.

The Journey
Immigrants sailed to America in hopes of carving out new destinies for themselves. Most were fleeing religious persecution, political oppression and economic hardships. Thousands of people arrived daily in New York Harbor on steamships from mostly Eastern and Southern Europe. The first and second class passengers were allowed to pass inspection aboard ship and go directly ashore. Only steerage passengers had to take the ferry to Ellis Island for inspection.


However, for all of them the trip meant days and sometimes months aboard overcrowded ships often traveling through hazardous weather. Substandard food an sanitation conditions only compounded the misery for many who had become sick aboard these ships. Nevertheless, the promise of freedom and opportunity made even the most arduous trips worth it.


This section describes step-by-step what most new arrivals experienced on Ellis Island. The opening of Ellis Island began a new era of restriction in the history of immigration. Here, the inspectors determined each newcomer's eligibility to land according to United States law. For the vast majority of immigrants, Ellis Island meant three to five hours of waiting for a brief medical and legal examination. For others, it meant a longer stay with additional testing or a legal hearing. For an unfortunate 2 percent, it meant exclusion and a return trip to the homeland.



"We were put on a barge, jammed in so tight that I couldn't turn 'round, there were so many of us, you see, and the stench was terrible. And when we got to Ellis Island, they put the gangplank down, and there was a man at the foot, and he was shouting, at the top of his voice, "Put your luggage here, drop your luggage here. Men this way. Women and children this way." Dad looked at us and said, ", we'll meet you back here at this mound of luggage and hope we find it again and see you later."
--Eleanor Kenderdine Lenhart, an English immigrant in 1921, interviewed in 1985.

Immigrant arrivals reached approximately one million each year during the peak immigration period, 1900-1914. The ever-growing numbers that taxed the facility with long lines and overcrowding. Ships dropped anchor outside the Narrows, where Quarantine officers would come aboard to check for signs of epidemic diseases. If a ship was free of disease, doctors would then examine the first and second class passengers, most of whom were given permission to land as soon as the ship docked. Steerage-class passengers were ferried to Ellis Island for inspection.
Sometimes new arrivals had to wait aboard their ships for days before being transferred to Ellis Island. Once there, they were often confined to the overcrowded barges for hours without food or water, waiting for their turn to disembark for inspection. The barges, chartered by the steamship lines lacked adequate toilets and lifesaving equipment, they were freezing cold in winter and unbearably hot in the summer. When disembarking at Ellis Island, some immigrants were so encumbered with large bundles that they kept their health certificates handy by clenching them between their teeth. Their assortment of baggage contained what must have been their most prized but portable belongings: clothing, feather beds, dinnerware, as well as photographs, family prayer books and other mementoes of the homeland.

Medical Inspection

The medical inspection began as soon as the immigrants ascended the stairs to the Registry Room. U.S. Public Health Service Doctors stationed at the top of the stairs watched carefully for shortness of breath or signs of heart trouble as the immigrants climbed up the steps hefting their baggage. U.S. Public Health Service doctors sometimes had only six seconds to scan each immigrant during the line inspection. If a doctor found any indication of disease, he marked the shoulder or lapel of an immigrant's clothing with chalk: "L" for lameness, "E" for eyes, for example. Marked immigrants, some of whom had received several of these mystifying letters, were removed from the inspection line and led to special examination rooms. There a doctor would check them for the ailment indicated by the chalk mark and give them a quick overall physical. Many had to be sent to the hospital for observation and care. Patients who recovered were usually allowed to land. Others, whose ailments were incurable or disabling, were sent back to their ports of origin.


Women Patients: Many immigrant women were frightened by the clinical routine followed on Ellis Island. For a woman who had never been touched by a man other than her husband, being examined by a male doctor could be a traumatic experience. In 1914 two women doctors were appointed to the medical staff, and prior to that, Public Health Service rules, required the presence of a matron during the examination of an immigrant woman by a male doctor.
Trachoma: Trachoma, a highly contagious eye infection that could cause blindness, was a common disease in southeastern Europe but relatively unknown in the United States. it appeared as inflammations on the inner eyelid. Doctors checked for the disease by raising the eyelid with either their fingers, a hairpin, or a buttonhook--a painful, but quick procedure. Since trachoma is difficult to cure, sufferers were generally isolated and sent back to their ports of embarkation at the first opportunity.



Medical inspection cards, punched daily aboard ship, were presented to the Ellis Island physicians for final examination. If the immigrant was in good health the card was stamped "passed."

Mental Testing


According to a 1917 U.S. Public Health Service manual, 9 out of 100 immigrants were marked with an "X" during the line inspection and were sent to mental examination rooms for further questioning. During this primary examination, doctors first asked the immigrants to answer a few questions about themselves, and then to solve simple arithmetic problems, or count backward from 20 to 1, or complete a puzzle. Out of the 9 immigrants held for this "weeding out" session, perhaps 1 or 2 would be detained for a secondary session of more extensive testing.

They asked questions. "How much is two and one? How much is two and two?" But the next young girl also from our city, went and they asked her, "How do you wash stairs, from the top or from the bottom?" She say, "I don't go to America to wash stairs." --Pauline Notkoff, a Polish immigrant in 1917, interviewed in 1985.
Can you draw a diamond? Doctors found that this test, which required immigrants to copy geometric shape, was useful only in the examination of immigrants who knew how to write or were used to holding a pencil.
The whole experience was very frightening...They brought me up to a room...They put a pegboard before me with little sticks of different shapes and little holes...I had to put them in place, the round ones and the square ones...and I did it perfectly. They said "Oh, we must have made a mistake. This little girl...naturally she doesn't know English, but she's very bright, intelligent." They took the cross (chalk mark) off me so we were cleared. --Victoria Sarfatti Fernandez, a Macedonian Jewish immigrant in 1916, interviewed in 1985.
In addition to using standard tests, Ellis Island doctors devised many of their own tests to help diagnose mental defects. Puzzle and mimicry tests were favored because they did not have to be explained to an immigrant through an interpreter; nor did an immigrant have to know how to read or write in order to solve them.

Legal Inspection


After the medical inspection, each immigrant filed up to the inspector's desk at the far end of the Registry Room for his or her legal examination, an experience that was often compared to the Day of Judgment. To determine an immigrant's social, economic, and moral fitness, inspectors asked rapid-fire series of questions, such as: Are you married or single? What is your occupation? How much money do you have? Have you ever been convicted of a crime? The interrogation was over in a matter of minutes after which an immigrant was either permitted to enter the United States or detained for a legal hearing.
Manifest Sheets: In 1893, the United States required steamship companies to record in manifests the vital statistics of all passengers. The manifest sheets listed the names of the passengers and their answers to a series of questions regarding nationality, marital status, destination, occupation and other personal information. When a ship arrived in New York, the manifests were turned over to Ellis Island Inspectors and used as a basis for cross-examining each immigrant. Immigrants were tagged with the number of the manifest page on which their name appeared. By checking the tags, inspectors could group and identify the new arrivals.

What is Your Name?: Andrjuljawierjus, Grzyszczyszn, Koutsoghianopoulos, and Zemiszkicivicz are a few of the names that Ellis Island inspectors had to decipher from handwritten manifests. The inspector's prime task was to question new arrivals to verify information already recorded in the ships' manifests; however, scores of immigrants contend that in the process their names were changed or simplified. Though these changes have never been verified, stories of immigrants receiving new names as they stood behind an inspector's desk on Ellis Island are part of America's oral tradition.

Literacy Test: Anti-immigration forces had been trying to impose a literacy test since the 1880s as a means of restricting immigration. They finally succeeded with the Immigration Act of 1917, passed over President Woodrow Wilson's veto. This law required all immigrants, 16 years or older to read a 40-word passage in their native language. These dual-language cards were used by inspectors to test immigrants' literacy.
Liable to Become a Public Charge: Any Immigrant deemed "liable to become a public charge" was denied entry to the United states. To Ellis Island inspectors, this clause, which has been a cornerstone of immigration policy since 1882, meant those who appeared unable to support themselves and, therefore, likely to become a burden on society. Ellis Island inspectors carefully weighed the prospects of new arrivals, especially those of women and children intending to rejoin husbands and fathers in this country.

Immigrants had to show their money to prove they were not paupers. The amount was left to the discretion of the inspector until 1909 when Commissioner of Immigration William Williams directed that all immigrants must have railroad tickets to their destinations and at least $25--at that time, the approximate equivalent of an inspector's salary. Within a few months Williams was forced to withdraw his order because of pressure from immigrant aid societies.

During the peak years of immigration, detention on Ellis Island ran as high as 20% for all immigrants inspected. A detainee's stay could last days or even weeks. Many were women and children who were waiting for a relative to come for them or for money to arrive. Others were waiting for a hearing in front of the board of special inquiry or for a final decision from Washington, D.C. Perhaps the most poignant of the detainees were the families waiting for a sick parent or child to be released from the Ellis Island hospital.
The time I spent on Ellis Island seemed like the longest waiting period for me because of the regimen. Naturally there had to be a regimen. it was the only way that they could handle that many people. I realize that now in retrospect. But at the time it was a nightmare...They weren't unkind, but you had no communication with the people who took care of you...And you had no communication with the other people that were there because everybody was so full of fright. --Barbara Barondess, a Russian Jewish immigrant in 1921, interviewed in 1995.
Women and Children
Women and children were detained until their safety after they left Ellis Island was assured. A telegram, letter, or prepaid ticket from waiting relatives was usually required before the detained women and children could be sent on their way. Single women were not allowed to leave Ellis Island with a man who was not related to them. When a fiancÚ and his intended were reunited at Ellis Island, their marriage was often performed right on the island--then they were free to leave.

Free to Land
After being inspected and receiving permission to leave the island, immigrants could make travel arrangements to their final destinations, get something to eat, and exchange their money for American dollars. Relatives and friends who came to Ellis Island for joyous reunions--often after years of separation--could escort the immigrants to their new homes. Immigrants boarded ferries to New York and New Jersey and, at last, were free to land in America.


Only one third of the immigrants who came to the United States through Ellis Island stayed in New York City. The majority scattered to all points across the country via a railroad that crisscrossed the entire continent and offered easy access to all of America's major cities. After immigrants had arranged their travel plans they were given tags to pin to their hats or coats. The tags showed the railroad conductors what lines the immigrants were traveling and what connections to make to reach their destinations.

When we were getting off Ellis Island, we had all sorts of tags on us. Now that I think about it, we must have looked like marked-down merchandise in Gimbals' basement store or something. --Ann Vida, a Hungarian immigrant in 1921, interviewed in 1986.
Ellis Island Today
In recognition of the significant role Ellis Island played in American history, the Main Building was refurbished in time for the immigration depot's centennial in 1992. Centerpiece of the restoration project was the construction of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Covering three floors and 200,000 square feet, the museum tells the poignant story of the immigrants who entered America through the golden door of Ellis Island. The museum features exhibits, restored areas, and educational facilities including an interactive learning center for children.
The museum also houses an extensive library and photograph archives in addition to its oral history collection containing over 1300 hundred taped interviews with immigrants who were processed at Ellis Island. Use of these collections is by appointment.
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