What does immigration mean? Immigration is the process of moving to a new country with the intention of living there permanently.
Who are immigrants? People who move to a new country with the intention of living there permanently are called immigrants.
By the late 1800s, many immigrants were arriving in the United States from Europe each day. Some wanted to join family members who were already here. Some were escaping prosecution for crimes committed. Some were escaping persecution for their religious or political beliefs. Some were simply in search of better life for themselves and their families. Some arrived alone. Some were old. Some were young. Nearly all were exhausted by the time they arrived. The United States government needed a system to handle this massive arrival of immigrants.
In 1892, Congress built the Ellis Island immigration center. It cost about 1.5 million dollars and was designed to process about 5,000 immigrants a day. Most people who worked at the Ellis Island center were as helpful as they could possibly be, but it was still an ordeal for everyone. Ellis Island was not simply a stop on the way to somewhere else. It was a sorting center. All immigrants had to pass a medical exam and a quiz. If their answers to the quiz were not acceptable, or they did not pass the medical exam, their request to enter the Unites States was denied. (About 1 in 50 people were refused entry.) The entry process for each immigrant usually took less than 5 hours. Still, with thousands of people arriving at Ellis Island each day, order had to be maintained. There was a system in place that had to be followed.
Getting to the Ellis Island center: After an exhausting trip across the Atlantic Ocean in a hot, dirty cabin aboard an ocean liner, people carried their luggage off the liner and onto a barge. Barges hauled people and their luggage to the center.
On Arrival, the luggage storeroom: Immigrants were directed to leave their heaviest luggage in a storeroom on the ground floor. They were given a luggage ticket, so their luggage could be returned to them once they completed the arrival process. Many immigrants did not speak English. There were translators on hand so that people were alerted to the fact that they would need their ticket to reclaim their luggage later in the day.
The metal pens: People from the same ship were moved from the luggage storeroom into a metal pen to keep them together. There, workers at the center explained the steps ahead, but again, many immigrants did not speak English. There were translators on hand, but not everyone from the same ship spoke the same language or understood the translator. Many immigrants became confused and frightened while they waited to leave the pen.
The medical exam: The next step was a quick medical exam. It took about a minute. In good weather, this medical exam was given outside to hurry things along. It was quick but painful. Doctors used a metal hook to check for infectious eye disease. Any immigrant who looked ill was marked with chalk and given a more through medical examination in another room.
The registry room: Those who passed the medical exam were guided to the registry room. In the registry room, officials sat behind high desks. Immigrants were seated in front of them. A family composed of a husband, wife, and their children were brought in together, and the husband was seated, with his family gathered around him. Each immigrant was asked exactly the same 29 questions. If an immigrant did not speak English, usually there was a translator available to read the questions to them in their own language. If their answers were acceptable, they were welcomed into the United States and given a landing card, so they could continue on their journey. But they were not yet citizens. To become citizens, they had to pass a citizenship test. That test did not occur at Ellis Island and immigrants had time to study for it. Ellis Island was simply a sorting center.
The Kissing Post: Immigrants were escorted from the registry room to a long corridor that led out of the center. If they had friends or family waiting for them, they would be reunited in that corridor. The corridor became known as the "Kissing Post". In the corridor, you could buy travel tickets. You could exchange foreign money for U.S. dollars. You could reclaim your heavy luggage with your luggage ticket. You might be provided with a boxed lunch to take with you. But you could not get back into the center once you had exited into the corridor. If you wanted to get back inside, you had to go through the whole process again.
The dormitory room: Some applications took longer than expected, because a problem had to be solved. Those immigrants were given a bunk in the dormitory room. This was one big room. Bunks were arranged in long rows, with an additional row above the other, like bunk beds. Only these bunks were hung from the high ceiling with chains. During the day, the bucks were raised to give people more comfort and space in the dormitory room. A simple meal, like stewed prunes over dried bread, was served. (the food did improve over time.) Everyone was given water to drink. There were bathrooms available. At night, the bunks were lowered for sleeping.
There was also a hospital room. There were not many beds in the hospital room. It was used for emergencies or for something that could be cured quickly. People were not turned away for a minor illness.
The Ellis Island center was designed to both help the people arriving and to protect the people already here. The process was well organized and amazingly quick. The workers at the center tried their very best to make the experience as pleasant as possible. Once people left the center, they were on their own or helped by family and friends. There was no government program in place for what to do next. That was up to the individual immigrants. But the Ellis Island center itself did the job it was designed to do, even though most days many more people passed through the center than the center was designed to handle.
Some very famous people passed through Ellis Island, some as young children. One of those kids was Walt Disney!
Ellis Island closed as an immigration center in 1956, about 60 years after it opened. Today, Ellis Island is a museum and is part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, under the care of the National Park Service. You can visit the museum and see Ellis Island for yourself!