The Ellis Island immigration process was not easy for those who traveled to the United States. Immigrants often spent several days or weeks at sea before getting to the island, and were exhausted and hungry when they arrived. And countless people went through this grueling ritual; the first immigrant passed through Ellis Island on January 1, 1892, and foreigners continued to be processed there through the 1930s.
The Ellis Island inspection process took several hours, and did not guarantee that an individual or their family would pass. Immigrants endured medical inspections and hours of legal questioning before they were allowed to step on American soil. Many were detained because they were sick. In fact, on July 19, 1884, then President Chester Arthur issued a proclamation allowing the government to quarantine people entering the United States to prevent the spread of pestilence due to mounting concerns over tuberculosis. Other times, immigrants were detained because they didn't have immediate family members to meet them or didn't have the financial means to settle in the United States. Only a very small percentage were deported due to health problems or other issues.
Immigration through Ellis Island may have been a challenge for many, but it was their chance to make a new life for themselves. For scores of determined immigrants, the brutal questions and inspections were merely the price of admission to America.
They Were Marked With Their Medical Conditions
A boy named Wilhelm was 16 years old when he traveled to the United States from Germany in 1910. He struggled on the trip, battling seasickness and vomiting for days. He remembered entering Ellis Island and lining up for a medical exam.
People were marked on their lapels with chalk, indicating whether or not they were fit to enter America. Immigrants without any mental problems were marked with an "X" on their right shoulder. A circle with an "X" meant there was a problem. A "B" indicated back problems, "Pg" equaled pregnancy, "Sc" meant there was a scalp infection, and so on. Those who had issues received additional exams in another room.
Wilhelm explained the scene:
"So, they let us through a big hall and we had to strip naked in a small room. And we met two fellas. They were doctors with stethoscopes. I didn’t know what a stethoscope was – I learned that after. They tapped us on the chest and on the back and then I had to run around. I was the only one they examined that way.
All of a sudden, one doctor yelled and raised his fist. He was gonna knock the other fella down, the other doctor. I didn’t know what it meant. I was told afterward. One said I had consumption, and the other doctor said there was nothing wrong with me – all I needed was a bellyful of food for a couple of months. I was undernourished."
Wilhelm eventually passed and was met by his cousin, who took him to Brooklyn to live with their relatives.
Approximately 20 percent of immigrants were held for medical treatment or for a legal hearing. Only two percent were denied entry.
Parents Had To Make Unbearable Decisions If Their Children Were Deported
If an immigrant child was age 12 or older and didn’t pass the medical exam, he or she was deported, alone. If a child was under the age of 12 and had a chronic or contagious disease, he or she was also deported, but had to be accompanied by one parent.
You can imagine the struggle families faced while they were deciding who would accompany their ill child back to Europe. Let's say a single mother arrived with three children, and one of them under the age of 12 had a contagious disease. She would either have to take the whole family back to their homeland, or leave her two healthy children with relatives already established in America.
They Were Given Just 10 Minutes Of Fresh Air
Isabel Belarsky’s life in Leningrad, Russia, was difficult. Her family lived in an apartment with five other families, with just one bathroom between them. It was extremely hard for most people to leave the country, but Belarsky’s father was an opera singer who secured a visa that enabled them to go to the United States. In 1930, they traveled from Leningrad to Poland and Germany before getting on a ship in Cherbourg, France.
When the family arrived in New York, a relative who was supposed to meet them with $500 bond didn’t show up. Belarsky recalled the tough time they spent waiting:
"We spent the night at Ellis Island, where there were 40 cots in each room but no sheets. We were fed a bowl of soup and allowed 10 minutes of fresh air. They counted us every time we entered or left a room."
They were finally given permission to enter America after passing a medical exam and appearing before a judge.
Sick Children Were Quarantined Away From Their Families
In 1920, eight-year-old Seymour Rechtzeit traveled from Poland with his father to the United States. They planned on making some money in America before sending for the rest of the family. Rechtzeit recalled how he was separated from his father when they arrived on Ellis Island because he had a cold:
"At Ellis Island, my father, who was not sick, stood in long lines as part of the entry process. Officials asked him lots of questions about where he came from, what he did for a living back in Poland, and what his plans were in America. All immigrants had to answer these questions. Only then could the newcomers leave Ellis Island and take a ferry to New York – and finally set foot in America.
When the doctor examined me, he discovered I had a cold. He said I could not go with my father, though I cried and begged. I was terrified to be all alone in this strange place. I stayed on Ellis Island for a few days, until I was feeling better. I had no toys with me. I didn't know of such things. But there were other sick boys to keep me company. Some of them spoke Yiddish, my language. We ate in a huge dining room. The food was different – it was American style. But it was good, especially the milk.
There was a long gate that led to the boats that took people off the island, across New York Harbor, to the city. Every day, we boys would walk to the gate and look out over the water. We wanted to see America. It was like being in a jail. We felt sad and wondered if we would ever get through that gate and onto a boat for that final journey to our new country, the United States."
When Rechtzeit recovered, he and his father were able to leave Ellis Island.