The dark side of Ellis Island differs from the vision of immigrants arriving in a land of freedom. The facility also detained thousands of undesirables.
A long line of enemy aliens, suspect American citizens, suspected communists and people being deported also passed through what is now a museum touting historic Ellis Island as a gateway to freedom and opportunity.
During World War I, Ellis Island was used to intern German merchant mariners and enemy aliens, as well as a processing center for returning sick or wounded U. S. soldiers.
Although ostensibly Ellis Island operated as an immigration processing center until 1954, after passage of the 1924 National Origins Act the only immigrants passing through were displaced persons or war refugees. The 1924 Immigration Act restricted immigration and allowed qualifying immigrants to be processed at overseas embassies
This role increased during World War II when at least 7,000 Germans, Italians and Japanese were detained there. Also held were American civilians or immigrants suspected of being actual or potential spies or saboteurs.
The island had ideal conditions. It was not likely someone could swim to freedom, there were more than two dozen buildings other than the “great hall”, and one dining room seated 1,000.
Overall, 2% of all immigrants processed here were not admitted after their long transatlantic voyage. Approximately 250,000 were turned back. Some were rejected because of insanity, disease or other health problems. It is believed that more than 3,000 arriving immigrants died while being held in Ellis Island hospital facilities.
Many detainees had to have relatives come for them. For those turned back, many family members had to decide whether to split up or return with those denied access. This gave the island the alternative titles of “Island of Tears” or “Heartbreak Island.”
Other immigrants were detained for deportation because of criminal records or because they were unskilled and might end up on welfare rolls.
Few have written of the discriminatory process used during the era when as many as 10,000 immigrants a day passed through.
Before reaching Ellis Island ships stopped at the Coast Guard Quarantine Station. If a ship passed this inspection primarily aimed at discovering epidemic disease, first and second-class passengers were examined and, if approved, released upon docking.
Steerage passengers were transported to Ellis Island by barge. The barges were freezing cold in winter and stifling in summer. They lacked toilet facilities and lifesaving equipment. Immigrants could wait days on these inadequate barges before reaching Ellis Island.
Women and children were detained days, even weeks, until their safety was assured. Required proof included telegrams, letters or prepaid transportation from a waiting relative. Single women could not leave with a male who was not a family member; weddings were performed on the spot.
During restoration, workers discovered graffiti under numerous paint layers. There were scratched names, initials, cartoons and poems. One penciled note said, in Italian, “Damned is the day I left my homeland.”
Yes, Ellis Island was, for many, a gateway to opportunity and freedom. To others, however, it was a place of dashed hopes or imprisonment. University of Richmond student Kara Schultz ’08 put it this way when introducing her history thesis: “I found that Ellis Island has always held a dual identity as both a ‘depository of bad memories’ and as a ‘golden door’ to a land of opportunity in America.”
- Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America (2006: Harvard University Press, Cambridge); : B. Moreno’s Encyclopedia of Ellis Island (2004: Westport, CT); National Park Service website for Ellis Island.