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The 12 Grueling Steps To Legal Immigration Through Ellis Island

Updated September 4, 2019 69.2k views12 items

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.

  • The First American Immigrants Met Was An Interpreter

    Photo: New York Public Library / Wikimedia Commons / No Restrictions

    Immigrants arrived at Ellis Island from various countries, including Germany, Ireland, Poland, Hungary, Greece, and Turkey. As you can imagine, they encountered people speaking many different languages when they stepped onto the island for the first time. The first American they met was usually an interpreter, who helped guide them through the process of immigration.

    These interpreters were invaluable because they often helped immigrants get into America. Without their help, many immigrants would have been turned away and deported. The average interpreter spoke six languages; however, some spoke as many as 12. One individual spoke 15 languages.

  • Children Sometimes Arrived Alone

    Photo: New York Public Library / Wikimedia Commons / No Restrictions

    Children arrived on Ellis Island either with their parents or alone. Some were orphans and received sponsorship from charities and other groups. Employees who worked at Ellis Island tried to make the place welcoming for children, some of whom spent weeks or months in limbo while they were waiting for entry into America. 

    Around 1900, officials built a playground to entertain the kids. The island also employed matrons who would play games with and sing songs to the children, even thought many of them didn’t speak the same language. The Red Cross donated a radio for the kids, and eventually a classroom was installed.

  • They Ate Three Meals A Day And Had A Library For Entertainment

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Yugoslavian man named Paul Frkovich left his communist country for the United States in 1946. He illegally entered the country via Mexico, but eventually received a letter from immigration officials asking him to travel to New York City for voluntary deportation. Frkovich spent nearly four months at Ellis Island waiting. After World War II, Ellis Island was mainly used for detention and deportation.

    Life at Ellis Island was pretty good, according to Frkovich, He had three meals a day, a clean bed, and access to a library full of books. He recalled, "If former Yugoslavia was like Ellis Island, I think everybody would come to Ellis Island.”

    He eventually got his green card and became a naturalized citizen.

  • They Were Entranced By The Statue Of Liberty

    Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons / No Restrictions

    Sadie Brown was 13 years old when she and her mother left Poland to move to the United States. Her father had died, and her Aunt Fanny in New York City planned on helping them when they arrived in America. Brown told her story to a journalist when she was 16:

    "We came by steerage on a steamship in a very dark place that smelt dreadfully. There were hundreds of other people packed in with us, men, women and children, and almost all of them were sick. It took us 12 days to cross the sea, and we thought we should die, but at last the voyage was over, and we came up and saw the beautiful bay and the big woman with the spikes on her head and the lamp that is lighted at night in her hand."

    In other first-hand accounts of arriving at Ellis Island, a 79-year-old German man said of seeing the statue, “I thought she was one of the seven wonders of the world."

    A man from Poland gushed, “The bigness of Mrs. Liberty overcame us. No one spoke a word for she was like a goddess and we know she represented the big, powerful country which was to be our future home.”