The European immigrants who crossed the Atlantic on ships in the late 1800s and early 1900s were greeted by the Statue of Liberty. But before they could embark on their new life in the United States, they had to undergo examination and inspection. For most immigrants arriving to the northeast in 1892 and the decades that followed, this meant a stressful trip through the buildings on Ellis Island.
Waiting and Long Lines
When ships arrived in harbor, inspectors boarded the ship to perform a cursory inspection of first- and usually second-class passengers. The government thought that passengers who could afford a first- or second-class ticket they were less likely to become a burden to the public. These passengers were only sent to Ellis Island if they failed the cursory health or legal inspection. Meanwhile, lower-class passengers were transported from the pier where their ship had docked to Ellis Island on barges or ferries, often in very crowded conditions. Passengers would often have to wait for hours on these barges to enter Ellis Island, lacking food, water, toilets or protection from the elements.
As immigrants filed through Ellis Island's large registry room, doctors would briefly scan each immigrant for obvious physical or mental health issues. Doctors or nurses used chalk to write letters on an immigrant's clothes to indicate possible health problems. An "H" indicated a possible heart condition while "LCD" meant loathsome contagious disease. Eventually, these rapid-fire physical health inspections came to be known as "six-second physicals."
A Barrage of Questions
The Immigration Service collected arrival manifests from incoming ships. The manifests contained passenger names as well as answers to several questions. An inspector, usually accompanied by an interpreter, asked each passenger a series of questions about potential destinations and job prospects.
Detention and Hearings
If immigrants failed the medical or immigration inspection, they were placed in detention until they could have a hearing in front of the Board of Special Inquiry, composed of inspectors. According to the National Archives at New York City, about 10 percent of immigrants had hearings, where evidence about the immigrant's medical health, economic conditions and beliefs was provided. Exclusion was often reversed if someone posted bond for an immigrant or an aid society took responsibility for the immigrant. Only about 2 percent of immigrants were deported, usually because they were considered a "likely public charge" on medical or economic grounds.
Paying the Way
Until 1909, immigrants entering the United States had to pay a head tax of 50 cents per person. This money contributed to the funding for the Office of Immigration. Ellis Island also hosted food vendors, immigrant aid societies and railroad ticket offices. When immigrant was detained, often for weeks, unscrupulous food contractors, money changers and sometimes even federal employees preyed on the vulnerable immigrant hopefuls.
- The National Archives at New York City: Ellis Island's Board of Special Inquiry: Case Study of Katelin Pilljar
- U.S. Department of Homeland Security: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service - Populating a Nation: A History of Immigration and Naturalization
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Ellis Island a Welcome Sight? Only After Years of Reform
- The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.: Ellis Island History
- Island of Hope, Island of Tears; David M. Brownstone et al
- Ellis Island; John S. Berman
- Thinkstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images