USA - American life
story of Ellis Island
migrations have marked the history of the human race ever since people
began to dream of a better life
Migration is in the news in 2017,
as Donald Trump tries to set up new physical and administrative
barriers against people wanting to enter the USA - mostly from Central
America, Asia and Africa. But a century ago, it was people in
Europe who were
migrating in mass, looking for a better life in the USA. Ellis Island,
the small island in New York Harbor was, for
millions of would-be immigrants, their first experience of
The year is 1906, the date November 16th. Franz and Ulrike Schumacher
and their three children have just disembarked
the Hamburg-Amerika line steamship that has carried
them across the stormy North Atlantic Ocean from Germany.
Like the thousands of other people milling
they are totally bewildered
caught up in a mixture of hope and apprehension, as they crowd into a
vast waiting room. The room sounds like the Tower of Babel, for few of
those in it speak a word of English. They speak German, Polish, Dutch,
Hungarian, or Russian maybe, yet they have come, seeking
a new life in a new world; and now they are on American soil for the
first time. This is America! America! Or at least it is Ellis Island.
hours of waiting, the Schumacher family are finally called to a desk;
immigration officials study their papers, and ask them where they
intend to go. They don't ask how long they're planning to stay,
however, since they know the answer already. All those who pass through
Ellis Island -- and that could mean over 11,000 people per day -- are would-be
They are looking to start a new life in a new world.
For many, passing through Ellis Island
was not so
much a matter of stepping into a new world, it was stepping into a new
life, a new character. And so it was that the man who finally
his family through the door and onto the ferry packed with a jostling
crowd of new Americans was not Franz Schumacher any more, but Frank
Shoemaker, even if he still didn't understand more than a couple of
words of English.
Ever since the Declaration of
Independence in 1776,
the United States has been a nation of immigrants. While today the
pattern of immigration is not what it used to be (most
coming from Latin America or Asia) and immigration policies
now designed to restrict entrance to the USA, things were very
different in the early part of the twentieth century.
Ellis Island, almost in the shadow of
the Statue of
Liberty at the entrance to New York Harbor, was the first stop on
American soil for some twelve million immigrants between the years 1892
and 1954. For most, it was "a portal of hope and freedom"; for just a
few, it was the "Island of Tears", when they were turned away for
failing to meet the various immigration laws and requirements.
During its years of operation, Ellis
Island was the principal port of immigration into the United States, processing
approximately 75% of all the immigrants into America over the period.
The original three acre
island got its name from a previous owner, Samuel Ellis. At the end of
the eighteenth century, the State of New York secured the island in
order to build fortifications as part of its harbor defense system.
It was in 1890 that that Congress set
to begin improvements on the island, so that a federal immigration
station could be built to replace the existing facilities
Garden, in lower Manhattan.
The original island was expanded to
its size, and the new immigration station opened on January 1st, 1892.
Five years later, it was destroyed by fire; but it was soon rebuilt,
with an impressive French Renaissance style brick building, which
opened for business on December 17th 1900 and processed 2,251
immigrants that very same day. The part of the building whose image
remained most clearly marked in the memories of those who passed
through, was the vast registry room occupying the whole central section
of the second floor; it was here that most of the processing of
would-be immigrants took place.
During the next half century, the small
to its present size, as it was joined by landfill to three adjacent
The main building was supplemented with a power house
kitchens, a hospital and contagious
diseases wards, a dormitory building, a bakery and several other
In the early 1920's, though, immigration
sharply, as restrictive immigration laws were passed. These put an
annual ceiling on immigration, and established quotas for each foreign
nation. They also made it compulsory for would-be immigrants to fill in
papers at the US consulate in their country of origin, rather than on
arrival. Thereafter, only those whose papers were not in order, or who
needed medical treatment, were sent to Ellis Island.
The facilities were increasingly used
for the assembly and deportation of aliens
who had entered the USA illegally, or of immigrants who had violated
the terms of their admittance. And finally, on November 12th 1954, the
Ellis Island immigration station ceased operation.
Now it is open again, but as a museum,
to tell the
story of a fundamental stage in the making of modern America. The story
needs to be told; what better place to tell it than on Ellis Island ?
move around with nothing to do
: lost, anxious - seek
- would-be: potential,
in the documents for
- three acre
hectare - funds
- power house:
electricity is made
: foreigners, non-Americans -
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