The more things change, the more they remain the same. Sadly our nation of immigrants develops feelings of entitlement, and work hard to prevent other immigrants from coming to this country. Descendants of immigrants use words like legal and illegal, they lack the story of how relatives before them came to this country and the painful ordeal many had to experience. Not only should we as Americans say there but also for the grace of God this could be my family, or me and then wipe the tears from your eyes when you learn that100 years ago, this was your family, and they survived.

Ellis Island. From 1892 to 1954 it was the gateway to America. But was it an Island of Hope, or of Tears?

We all came here in the bottom of boats, some of us in chains. No one is any better than anyone else, America was created by the blood sweat and tears of a rejected people, fighting for freedom and the right to be treated with dignity and respect. America has imported racism and hatred from other cultures. Hatred and racism is out of place here in America, our history teaches us that we were a group of slaves, indentured servants, settlers and convicts searching for the opportunity to build a different world, and we did.

 

 

For everyone who wanted to live in America, Ellis Island was the gateway, the ordeal that had to be endured before they could enter the United States. They’d already made long journeys from the most remote regions or the largest cities of Europe, not knowing if they’d be allowed into the United States at the end of those journeys or not. Ellis Island was the last of the tests and examinations they would have to take. It was either happiness or despair.

After they left the ship and entered the inspection station at Ellis Island, they had to walk up a steep stairway, past doctors who stared at each of them and occasionally wrote something in chalk on their coats. L for lame, H for heart trouble, E for eye problems. Those who were sick could be removed from the line and denied entry. Everyone was examined, including children and babies. Families with one sick member were separated, sometimes for weeks. And that was only the informal part of the physical exam.

Then they filed slowly into a huge noisy, crowded room, as lines of people snaked back and forth, guided by waist high railings. They shouted in all their own languages, since few of the immigrants spoke English, and few of the immigration workers spoke anything else. It took hours to get through the lines to the doctors who did the physical examinations, and more hours to deal with grueling legal and mental examinations. The first examination was for lice, and those who had them had their heads shaved. Then they were examined for skin disease, which meant that they had to remove their clothing. The eye exam was the most frightening, because it meant that the doctor had to flip back their upper eyelids with a hooked instrument to examine the eyeball for disease.

Imagine you are a poor immigrant, you’ve just completed a long journey from your small rural town in Europe, across the ocean in steerage (essentially the basement of the ship where passengers were crowded together with no privacy or indoor plumbing and very little food), you have been questioned over and over and over, and finally when you are allowed off the ship, your head is examined for lice, and perhaps shaved, you are told to remove at least part of your clothes in public, and finally someone sticks a metal hook in your eye – and because you don’t speak any English, you don’t have any idea why these people are doing all this to you. And this is only the first step – there are more hours of waiting and questions ahead of you. America is supposed to be the land of equality and opportunity – but what you experience on Ellis Island doesn’t seem like either.

And yet with determination and courage, they came. Thousands of people poured through the doors of Ellis Island from all over the world, and they changed the face and the life of America forever.

  1. There were no visas required to settle in the US before 1875. In 1880 the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the entry of Chinese and many who had worked on the railroad crossed into Mexico and settled there. In 1907 Mexicans were required to be inspected before entering the US and criminals (such as Pancho Villa) were prohibited from crossing the border. In 1917 quotas for immigrants began. During the 1940s Bracero cards were freely available to Mexican guest workers. Green Cards were not issued in the United States to immigrants until 1950.

 

What have we learned from the Ellis Island Experience from a Sociological Perspective?

 

 

 

 

  • People came from all over the world
  • Most came from Europe
  • Europe was experiencing financial distress and famine
  • America opened it’s doors in a time of Europe’s distress
  • Americans were not happy about the new comers
  • Ellis Island was a difficult experience
  • Some families were separated, some had to return home for health reasons
  • Ellis Island had its own hospital
  • Most immigrants had language problems
  • Females had a more difficult time than males.
  • The Irish had a more difficult time and often tended to be treated poorly
  • Wealthy and middle classes were examined on board before the ship reached Ellis Island and were permitted to get off ship before the Ellis Island stop.
  • Over 100 million Americans can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island
  • Ellis Island is a Museums and genealogy Center
  • Ellis Island immigrants had to adjust to a new country
  • Ellis Island immigrants had to adjust to a different educational system
  • There are different types of immigration, some forced, some voluntary and some circular

 

The immigrant group from Ellis Island had to adjust to class discrimination. They had to adjust to the attitudes of the American people, which were not always friendly. Some Americans thought they would become a burden on society and take away from them and their families. The immigrant children had to adjust to new schools and some going to schools for the first time. The Ellis Island group faced some of the same challenged, which today’s immigrant faced only they are the Americans not wanting the new group to come in. America transformed the old group and she has the power to do the same for the new group.

America in 1900 was in the middle of one of the biggest waves of immigration in its history. So, the proportion of foreigners to citizens was at least as big as it is now, probably bigger on a percentage basis. Plus, most of the foreigners were coming from places that were not traditional homelands for Americans already here, like Italy, Russia and Poland, to name several, with very different cultures, and different religions. The US was traditionally a Protestant Christian society and suddenly there were large numbers of Jews, Catholics and Orthodox, which most Americans knew little or nothing about. Of course we already had some numbers of Catholics, but relatively few and we didn’t have our first, and so far, only Catholic president until 1960. We had relatively few immigration laws at that point. The US was primarily concerned with foreigners coming in with infectious diseases, so if you take a look at the photos from Ellis Island, what you primarily see are people being examined by doctors trying to make sure they were healthy. Lots of folks were unhappy with such large numbers of immigrants coming in every year and we developed more and more immigration laws as a result of changes in public opinion to this wave of immigration and became increasingly restrictive as well until well after World War 2. We made it more difficult to become an American citizen as well, except for those born in the US, who were legally recognized as US citizens even when their parents were legally forbidden to become US citizens as with the Chinese and Japanese. US society and what it meant to be an American evolved over time, as they became us, and we became them as well. When things melt in the pot, it changes the flavor of the whole dish.

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply