Ellis Island, U.S. Immigration Portal, Closed

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The main immigration center admitted about 15 million newcomers in 62 years, and today more than 100 million Americans can trace their ancestry to those immigrants.

On this day in history, November 12:

Ellis Island — the chief immigration entry facility in New York that admitted about 15 million people to America from overseas since it opened in 1892 — closed its doors in 1954.

After the introduction of new laws, wars and economic recessions, the number of new immigrants had slowed, and the site was no longer used as an examination center. Its functions were transferred to the headquarters of the Immigration Service in New York City.

New immigrants were now free to enter the United States without inspection on arrival. The only exceptions were those who had been sentenced to deportation for violating U.S. laws or those had been admitted provisionally on parole.

Chief Immigration Center for 62 Years

The island, located at the mouth of the Hudson River, was originally owned by Samuel Ellis, a Manhattan merchant from Wales, and in 1808 it passed on to his heirs. For awhile, it was used by the federal government, which bought it from New York State for $10,000, as an arms storage facility, but many local residents objected.

On January 1, 1892, the site became an immigration center and, by the turn of the 20th century, some 5,000 people a day entered the doors of the Ellis Island Immigrant Station, hoping for a better life in America.

For 62 years, Ellis Island was the chief immigration center for the United States. Millions of immigrants had to spend a day or two there while their papers were processed and they were inspected by officials of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration.

The year 1907 was the peak for immigration at Ellis Island, with 1,004,756 new arrivals processed. The all-time, daily record also occurred that year, on April 17, with a total of 11,747 newcomers.

All Immigrants Asked 29 Questions

Immigrants with diseases and visible health problems were sent home or held in the island’s hospital facilities for considerable periods of time. All newcomers were asked 29 questions, including their name, their occupation, and the amount of money they had.

Those who were approved for entry into the United States spent from two to five hours at Ellis Island. But more than 3,000 would-be immigrants died while they were in the hospital. Some unskilled workers who wanted to become Americans were rejected because they were judged as “likely to become a public charge.”

Approximately two percent of all immigrants were denied admission to the United States and sent back to their country of origin for such reasons as criminal background, chronic contagious disease, or insanity.

The mass processing of immigrants at Ellis Island ended in 1924, when the Immigration Act that year dramatically limited immigration and allowed processing at overseas embassies. Afterward, it became primarily a detention and deportation-processing center.

During and after World War II, Ellis Island served as Coast Guard training base as well as an internment camp for enemy aliens, U.S. civilians, or immigrants detained for fear of spying or sabotage. Some 7,000 Germans, Italians and Japanese people were detained for such reasons.

Reopened as Immigration Museum

Once Ellis Island finally closed its doors in 1954, many proposals were made for its use — as a theater, a museum, or a home for the aged, alcoholics and drug addicts. The site was put up for auction in 1961, and President Lyndon Johnson made it a national monument in 1965. As with all historic areas run by the National Park Service, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. From 1976 to 1984, it was open to the public on a limited basis.

Then, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation began a major restoration effort, and the historic site was reopened in 1990 as an immigration museum, housing rare objects, photographs, prints, videos, interactive displays and oral histories, as well as The American Family Immigration History Center. The museum attracts nearly two million visitors a year.

Today, more than 100 million Americans, or 40 percent of the total population, can trace their ancestry to the immigrants who first arrived in America through Ellis Island before dispersing to different areas throughout the nation.

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