How Many Immigrants Arrived At Ellis Island, And What Did They Experience There?

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From January 1, 1892 to November 12, 1954, more than 12,000,000 immigrants (people who permanently settle in a foreign country) arrived at Ellis Island (a 3-acre island in the New York City harbor off the southern tip of Manhattan). Known as aliens (noncitizens), these immigrants came by ship from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the West Indies. Inspectors and doctors from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) went aboard ships to process first- and second-class passengers—that is, gave them papers granting permission to enter the United States. Complete processing usually took between three and four hours. Third-class passengers were taken by ferry to Ellis Island, where they were given tags stating their names and the name of the ship on which they had arrived. Men were immediately separated from women and children, and everyone waited in long lines. Doctors inspected people for contagious diseases, vision problems, mental retardation, and psychological disorders.

Assisted by a clerk and an interpreter, an INS inspector asked each person thirty-two basic questions, such as name, age, occupation, command of native language, ability to understand English, amount of money in his or her possession, and final destination. If an alien was suspected of being unqualified to enter the United States, he or she was kept for more questioning and paperwork. Women and children had to wait at Ellis Island until a male relative came to meet them. Before being released, poor aliens had to arrange for someone to bring them money. Sick or pregnant people were hospitalized at the medical facility on the island. Criminals or others who were declared "undesirable" (only 2 percent of the total number of people applying for entry) were sent back to their homelands.

By 1931 a new processing system had been put into effect. People wanting to emigrate (leave one country to settle in another) to the United States first had to obtain permission papers from a United States consulate (government office) in their home country. Ellis Island was closed in 1954 because it was no longer needed as an immigrant center. An estimated 40 percent of the United States population descended from immigrants who came through Ellis Island. On May 11, 1965, Ellis Island was designated a national historical site and during the 1980s it was restored as a park and museum so that visitors could better understand the immigrant experience.

Further Information: Coan, Peter Morton. Ellis Island Interviews. New York: Facts On File, 1997; Ellis Island. [Online] Available, October 22, 2000; Liberty State Park. The History of Ellis Island. [Online] Available, October 22, 2000.

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