America’s Welcome Mat: A Brief History of the Ellis Island Immigration Center
Almost half of those living in the United States today can trace their roots back to a predecessor who entered the country through the gateway to America, Ellis Island. Though you’d never know it from the way many first and second generation Americans denigrate those seeking a better life — or political asylum — just like Nana and Papa did.
But I digress. As usual.
Ellis Island was part of the national defense system from 1808 through the Civil War. When nearby Bedloe’s Island also fell into disuse as a fort, the Statue of Liberty was erected there.
On the first day Ellis Island was open for business, 700 immigrants arrived to start life anew in America. The first of the first was a 15-year-old Irish lass from County Cork named Annie Moore. Half a million more would follow in just 1892 alone.
By that time, millions of immigrants had already poured through New York Harbor. There was no screening or regulation from 1855 to 1890, and eight million newcomers, mostly immigrants from western and northern Europe, walked off their ships and into the country with no hassle at all.
Until the Protestant ruling class began to worry that the over-abundance of available cheap labor was driving down wages and that “ignorant” immigrants would be used as scabs to bust the unions. I’m sure the progressively darker complexions of the new arrivals (Greeks and Italians! The horror.)had nothing to do with it though.
WASP-y pressure was duly put on the federal government to control the influx of immigrants entering the country. And, as always, the elites get what the elites want.
But even at that, not everyone who arrived by boat at Ellis Island was subjected to federal scrutiny. First and second-class passengers were usually interviewed on board the ship and allowed to pass through without incident. The authorities assumed that anyone who could afford to travel in such style was no risk of becoming a burden on society.
However, those in third class or steerage were afforded no such niceties. These passengers were treated like human cargo and put through a rigorous screening process before being allowed to set foot on American soil.
Surprisingly, only two percent of immigrants were turned away in the end.
During World War I, Ellis Island was used to detain suspected enemies more often than it was to process immigrants. When the war was over, Congress passed new quota laws. The National Origins Act of 1924 greatly limited the number of immigrants from “certain” (you know, the non-lily white ones) countries allowed in the United States. Those wishing to immigrate to America would now have to apply first at the U.S. embassy in their country.
During World War II, Ellis Island once again served as a detention center for the enemy, and during the post-war years, suspected Communists were held there as well. It was also used as a holding and deporting center for illegal immigrants, a sad reversal of its original purpose and spirit.
On November 12, 1954, Ellis Island closed its doors after processing over 12 million immigrants since officially opening on January 1, 1892.
Ellis Island underwent a $160 million renovation beginning in 1984, the largest project of its kind in U.S. history. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened its doors in September 1990 and serves as a reminder that all Americans, unless they are Native Americans, descend from immigrants.
Yes, that most likely means you.