Encountering Ellis Island: How European Immigrants Entered America
By Ronald H. Bayor
Johns Hopkins University Press, 168 pp.
Reviewed by Catherine M. Burns
Last year I began to notice news reports on school children learning about Ellis Island through re-enactment. Boys and girls dressed in flat caps, shawls, and European national costumes crowd into a classroom recast as a ship’s third-class steerage quarters. Teachers and principals decide their fates by taking on the roles of immigration inspectors, commissioners, and physicians. A teacher-turned-inspector scrutinizes their papers in the cafeteria. The lucky ones then line up for a mock medical examination, while the less fortunate march to a blank table or room labeled a detention center. Recalling that Ellis Island physicians used buttonhooks to examine eyelids for trachoma, I always wonder about the process teachers use to determine how much of Ellis Island students should experience for themselves. Why the educators choose to make the activity about Ellis Island, rather than Angel Island in California or any other American immigration station, the reporters never say.
Ellis Island was not the United States’ only immigration station, but it was its most active. Over 14 million people were processed there between its opening in 1892 and the passage of legislation in 1924 that curtailed European immigration. Questions about how to vet all of those people and whom to let in and why, Bayor contends, should be studied for the sake of gaining perspective on present-day immigration questions. Despite the book’s title, Bayor makes significant comparisons between Ellis Island and Angel Island, the primary inspection point for Asians.
The chapter on immigrant processing is the book’s longest and, judging by the enthusiasm of student re-enactors, will likely be especially interesting to readers. The majority of Ellis Island immigrants completed inspection within five hours, but the experience was nevertheless confusing and sometimes frightening. Immigrants figuratively placed themselves on a conveyor belt kept moving by doctors and inspectors tasked with deciding whether they met the legal standards for admission. This often left immigrants feeling scared and powerless. Doctors’ preconceived notions about the racial qualities of immigrants, especially those from Eastern and Southern Europe, informed their medical examinations. It was not uncommon for the migrants to be detained or rejected for illnesses they did not even know they had. Immigrants also suffered a lack of privacy. One woman from Wales recalled the shame her mother felt in having to disrobe before physicians: “[M]y mother had never, ever undressed in front of us. In those days nobody ever would” (49).
Experiences at Ellis Island were especially gritty for those detained or excluded. Detention happened for a number of reasons and did not always lead to deportation. As with any bureaucracy, some benefitted, some gamed the system, and some experienced injustice. Children could be detained due to illness, theirs or a parent’s, or if a guardian failed to retrieve them. All detainees contended with rats, diseases, and overcrowded sleeping conditions. Kitchen staff had a monumental job in feeding 2,000 individuals daily while trying -- and failing -- to maintain sanitary conditions.
The material on employees is eye-opening. Medical inspections run like a factory line left doctors exhausted. Staffers on both Ellis Island and Angel Island obtained their jobs through political connections or government contracts, which resulted in corruption and exploitation. Private contract food concessionaires skimped on quality and pocketed the difference in costs, while money exchangers cheated America’s new arrivals. Immigration inspectors and others working on ships sold false papers to immigrants, facilitating their illegal entry into the United States. Unauthorized admissions and instances of false citizenship occurred frequently enough to draw the attention of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins.
Bayor’s emphasizing how immigrants and staff felt about their time on Ellis Island is unique. Immigration history is often taught and studied in terms of evolving legislation. Yet law is not absent from the book. Operations at Ellis Island reflected a shift in immigration regulation from state to federal control. Before Ellis Island opened in 1892, immigrants had been entering New York at Castle Island since 1855, but that facility became inadequate as the number of immigrants increased and federal laws intensified the inspection process. In 1891, immigration became subject to federal guidelines, much like railroads and industry did in the Progressive Era.
Through Bayor’s comparisons with Angel Island, readers should also come away with an understanding that Asian and European immigrants were subject to different laws.
Given its significance in the national mythology of the United States—the “nation of immigrants” -- any study of Ellis Island runs the risk of reinforcing conceptions of American identity with being white. Black Caribbean and Asian, particularly Chinese, immigrants were processed at Ellis Island but in far smaller numbers than Europeans. Geography certainly plays a role in explaining why Ellis Island immigrants were overwhelmingly white while Asians dominated at Angel Island. Yet so do laws intended to limit the abilities of Asians to enter the United States, particularly the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
Immigration historians and activists have increased focus on Angel Island for the sake of broadening understanding of America’s ethnic origins. Bayor seems to be trying to do the same by covering Angel Island. Between 1910 and 1940, it processed 340,000 immigrants -- far fewer than did Ellis Island -- but the roles of geography and race-based laws in shaping immigrant flows make it important to the American immigration story.
For that matter, Ellis Island was not always a national symbol or destined to be one. Immigrants ceased to be processed at Ellis Island in 1943 and the facility went on to house suspected political subversives before shutting its doors in 1954. This period tarnished Ellis Island’s reputation to the point that the U.S. government tried to sell it. Circumstances took a turn in the 1960s when memory of those who passed through Ellis Island changed. Once envisioned as the detritus of Europe and threats to America’s White Anglo-Saxon Protestant gene pool, the children and grandchildren of Ellis Island immigrants saw them as symbols of American pride and nation building. The ethnic revival of the 1960s and 1970s, in which white Americans of recent immigrant heritage embraced their roots, shaped their attitudes. This outlook influenced an early attempt to open the site to visitors in 1976, as well as efforts beginning in 1981 to restore Ellis Island, and, with the help of private and public funding projects, open it to tourists in 1990. The importance of Ellis Island to American national memory and identity cannot be extricated from policies that favored European immigrants and helped to create an overwhelming white America in the twentieth century.
I am sympathetic to what I think are Bayor’s intentions in including Angel Island, but these sections often seem awkward and out of place in a book on how Ellis Island worked. They require more explicit justification. Bayor merely implies that concerns about race or a desire to include Asian immigrants informed his decision to draw attention to Angel Island. Readers attracted to the words “Ellis Island” or “European Immigrants” in the book’s title might be inclined to skip the Angel Island material altogether.
The strength of Encountering Ellis Island is the use of personal stories to offer an accessible means to a topic that is of popular interest but also often hidden. Bayor effectively employs immigrants’ own words to demystify the Ellis Island bureaucracy rather than letting the workings of the bureaucracy overshadow the immigrants. College students, one of this book’s intended audiences, could easily use Encountering Ellis Island as a basis for a discussion on whether American immigration history is better approached through a focus on the viewpoints of immigrants or the laws targeted at them. In de-emphasizing personal experiences, immigration history textbooks often fail to provide readers with the opportunity even to consider that question.
Catherine M. Burns is a Ph.D. in U.S. History (University of Wisconsin-Madison). Her work has appeared in New Hibernia Review and The Irish in the Atlantic World (2010).