Co-authored with Jairo Flores, who conducted much of the research and writing for this article. Visit AustinKocher.com for more short articles about the current state of the US immigration system.
Today marks 129 years since the opening of Ellis Island. Ellis Island opened on New Years Day in 1892. As an immigration researcher, Ellis Island looms large in America’s history of immigration, serving both as a symbol of how much our country has been shaped by immigration while also hiding many of the abuses and exclusionary policies that remain in place today.
Ellis Island got its name from Samuel Ellis. In the 1770’s, Samuel Ellis bought Oyster Island and named it after his family. After his passing, the family sold it to the Federal Government to use as a fort on the condition that the name remained, and it eventually became the historical immigration center, Ellis Island. Interestingly, the island was originally used as an execution site for pirates.
Opening its doors in 1892, Ellis Island served as an immigration station and had millions of immigrants pass through as new US citizens. Today, it is estimated that nearly 40% of all Americans have had at least one ancestor that came through Ellis Island. Less known is Angel Island near San Francisco, where hundreds of thousands of immigrants entered America from the West.
The very first immigrant to be processed at Ellis Island was 15-year-old Annie Moore from Ireland and she was followed by 700 more that day, and 450,000 in the first year alone.
At the time that Ellis Island opened, a change in immigration policy was happening and there were many more immigrants coming from southern and eastern Europe. A large number of immigrants were also made up of Jews fleeing home countries to escape poverty and oppression. Sadly, the United States was a breeding ground for anti-Semitism in the 1920s and 30s, and immigration policies explicitly restricted Jews from migrating to America.
One of my favorite websites about Ellis Island (click here) displays the wide variety of cultures and ethnicities that arrived in Ellis Island after the United States started changing policies to allow more countries to send migrants — including these Romanian women. The website is rich with unique sepia portraits.
At the peak of immigrant processing, an average of 1900 were processed every day but not everyone was processed equally. If deemed fit for entry, many would be passed within hours while others were detained for potentially weeks while screened for legal and health purposes. In particular, many people who were Deaf and hard-of-hearing were excluded even though many came with excellent education.
While many people working just outside of Ellis Island had good intentions, there were also those who took advantage of the new citizens. Inflated currency rates, excessive railroad fees, and even bribes were used against them in attempts to be hostile and unwelcoming.
When the US entered WWI immigration sharply declined, and Ellis Island was converted into a detention center for suspected enemies Legislation was also passed in 1921 and 1924 that limited how many immigrants were allowed into the US.
Among the many famous people that passed through Ellis Island, world-renowned Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera arrived in November 1931, both of which were instrumental in developing the surrealist and muralist movements.
Josephine Baker also passed through Ellis Island. Baker was an American born singer and actress who found success in Paris. Returning to the US in 1935, she encountered segregation and prejudice and returned to France but later spoke alongside Martin Luther King Jr.
Alongside Frida Kahlo and Josephine Baker came other notable figures in history such as scientists, poets, and Olympians. Discover more about them here at StatueofLiberty.org.
After the wars immigration was slowed to a trickle, and only 21,000 people came through in 1954. Ellis Island shut its doors as an immigration center and became a Coast Guard station before then being converted into a museum, opening in 1990. (Read more about Ellis Island on History.com here.)
For those interested in reading more about accounts and perspectives during the Ellis Island period, Malgorzata Szejnert wrote an amazing book called Ellis Island: A People’s History, which looked at officers, immigrants, doctors, and more. It captures the essence of what it was like and is definitely worth a read.