The 12 Grueling Steps To Legal Immigration Through Ellis Island

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.


  • People Answered 29 Questions On Topics Like Polygamy, Anarchy, And The US Constitution

    People Answered 29 Questions On Topics Like Polygamy, Anarchy, And The US Constitution
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When immigrants arrived at Ellis Island, they were funneled through a line in the Great Hall. In addition to medical examinations, they spent several hours answering questions. They were asked 29 questions with the help of an interpreter, including these:

    • Are you meeting a relative here in America?  Who?

    • Have you been in a prison, almshouse, or institution for care of the insane?

    • Are you a polygamist?  Are you an anarchist?

    • Are you coming to America for a job?  Where will you work?

    • Are you deformed or crippled?

    • Who was the first President of America?

    • What is the Constitution?

    • Which President freed the slaves?

    • Can you name the 13 original Colonies?

    • Who is the current President of the United States?

  • Deaf People Were Often Rejected Because They Were Considered Financial Burdens

    A deaf Jewish girl named Nelly Ratner left Vienna, Austria, in 1938 after the Nazis rose to power. She, her mother Hilda, and her deaf sister traveled to the United States from Italy, hoping for a better life. However, they wound up spending five months living on Ellis Island because immigration officials feared they would be financially dependent on the government.

    A woman named Tanya Nash who worked for the New York Society of the Deaf advocated for the family, telling a judge that deaf people could be "very independent." Initially, her efforts didn’t work. However, the family ended up receiving a $2,500 bond from Jewish philanthropists, as Ratner later recalled:

    "This is money to support us if we couldn't work or something. So then, later, they did and finally let us go. We were so happy to leave. When we got out my mother and uncle worked, saved, paid back the money. It took five years. The money was all paid off, finally. $2,500.00 in five years. They both worked so hard."

    Ratner's uncle found them a place to live in the Bronx. They later moved to Brooklyn and then Manhattan.

  • People Fought Over Beds And Struggled With Language Barriers

    People Fought Over Beds And Struggled With Language Barriers
    Photo: Underwood & Underwood / Wikimedia Commons / No Restrictions

    Gabriel Tarriño left Spain and arrived at Ellis Island in August 1920. He likened his stay on Ellis Island to being in prison. He wrote in his diary that he was very lonely after being separated from his wife, daughter and son:

    "Why is this? Staying with people that I don’t understand and they don’t understand me? If I get a fever who is going to care for me. I do not know, therefore a deep sadness envelopes me and wonder where it’s going to stop, if I could only speak with these guards but when I try they dispel me and almost use their hands on me."

    He also noted that people would fight over the cots:

    "In the dormitories there are so many fights for the sleeping cots, that we tremble with fear, because if two persons get to the cot at the same time, one says this is mine and the other one no it’s mine until they start beating each other. In the salons the same thing happens. I was sitting on a bench one day and two of these morons and they took it off of me and two Spaniards when they saw what was happening they came to my assistance. I saw that the others were going to hit them so I told the Spaniards forget it, let them have it, because anyone could lose their life or be maimed by such animals, without a conscience!"

    Tarriño added that the dining halls were very loud and people were rude. It was difficult communicating with immigrants from all over the world, including France, Italy, Peru and Japan: "They cause such a ruckus that even God cannot understand."

  • "Eye Men" Singled Out Immigrants Who Had A Dangerous Disease

    "Eye Men" Singled Out Immigrants Who Had A Dangerous Disease
    Photo: Ellis Island Public Health Service Physicians / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    Doctors known as "eye men" examined immigrants for trachoma, which not only caused blindness – it could kill. Around 50 percent of the people who were detained on Ellis Island had this disease, and they were usually deported.

    Josephine Garzieri was 15 when she traveled from Italy to the United States with her father and brother. She had trachoma. Since it was highly contagious, she was quarantined in the medical wing until deportation. When her father found out he needed a $1,000 bond for her treatment or else she would be deported, he took action, asking strangers for a loan. Fortunately, he was able to raise enough money to pay for her treatment.

    Garzieri was placed in a special section of the hospital for people who had trachoma and spent 11 and-a-half months there, as she later recalled:

    "They just take you there and take your clothes off and give you clothes that belong to the hospital. So, you have identification, you can't run away. So, nobody tried to run away. We got nowhere to go. We had a guard with a gun, in the front of the building and in the back of the building. So, we made no attempts of running away."

    She received daily treatments and was not allowed to walk, because that would have created too much heat on her eyelids and stall the healing process.