Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island

Aimee Heidelberg - July 21, 2023

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, hundreds of immigrants crossed the Atlantic Ocean on ships to the United States to begin a new life. After days or weeks of rolling ocean waves, they were greeted in New York Harbor by two iconic sights; the majestic Statue of Liberty, and the French Renaissance style main building of Ellis Island. For first- and second-class passengers, Ellis Island was just another building in the New York skyline. For third class passengers, it was the gate to their future, one they had no guarantee of passing. Most immigrants spent only a few hours at Ellis Island, undergoing routine inspection. Others called it ‘home’ for much longer as they sorted out paperwork or health issues. The worst-case scenario was deported back to where they came from – a fate that would undo all their hopes and hard work to get to America.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Ellis Island. rabesphoto via flickr, 2018 (CC 2.0).

Ellis Island’s Impact

When the United States federal government took over immigration processing from individual states in the late 1800s, they sent immigrants to the new immigration processing station at Ellis Island. The facility processed more than 12 million immigrants during its run from 1892 to 1954, roughly 75% of all immigrants coming to the United States at this time. The National Park Service says about 40% of the United States population had an ancestor who went through Ellis Island. During its peak years, from 1900 to 1914, immigrants fled European countries primarily in the south and eastern regions, areas fraught with religious persecution, famine, and political strife. They came to the United States for a new life and opportunities in the United States. This was their first stop, the gateway to their dreams of safety and prosperity – or a shattering rejection and return to their old existence.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Woman and girl arriving to Ellis Island Baltic, 1907. Library of Congress, public domain.

Ellis Island Wasn’t for Everyone

Many of the ships that carried immigrants to the United States had a “class” system. A higher-priced ticket would get passengers more spacious rooms, more shipboard amenities, better deck space for recreation, and if the Titanic disaster is any indication, a better shot at a place in a lifeboat during an emergency. But the class system extended beyond the ship. It carried into immigration checkpoints. Ellis Island immigration officials would boat out to the ships to conduct onboard inspections of first- and second-class passengers. Instead of heading to the Ellis Island immigration inspection center, they went from the ships directly to U.S. Customs, after which they could board the trains to their destinations. At the time, there were no passports or visas; each immigrant had to speak directly to an official. Third class passengers had to head to Ellis Island for the required immigration inspections.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Immigrants from Prinzess Irene board the ferry to Ellis Island, 1911. Library of Congress, public domain.

The Ships Did More Than Just Process New Arrivals

The passenger ships did more than just carry immigrants across oceans. They kept detailed records of the passengers, which would supply United States immigration inspectors vital information about each person coming in to start their new life. Barry Moreno of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum told, “This document would be crucially important when the immigrants got to New York.” Ships could provide Ellis Island officials with the names, ages, occupations, destination, and other details that might aid the process. Passengers were given tags to wear, stating their number in the ship’s manifest, helping to make the process go smoothly even if the immigrant couldn’t communicate with the U.S. immigration official. Once on Ellis Island, if the information from the manifest matched what the immigrant told inspection officials (including names; it is a common myth that officials “Americanized” immigrant names), and they passed the health checks, they were usually free to leave.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Rooftop of Ellis Island main building. Recreation space for emigrants awaiting deportation (1902). Library of Congress public domain.

“Island of Tears”

Even for most of those third-class passengers, Ellis Island was just a stopover. For 80% of the arriving immigrants, the inspection process was complete in a matter of three to five hours. For others, it took a while longer, but they often received approval within a day or two. Officials only denied entry to 2% of immigrants – but there was no telling who would be detained. They may not have known they had a health issue until the eye exam revealed glaucoma. They may have said something wrong and been labeled ‘mentally incompetent.’ Historian Ronald Bayor quotes an Ellis Island immigrant as saying, “I couldn’t enjoy nothing. I was afraid they were going to send me back. And I was dreaming that if they try to send me back, I’m going to fall into the river and die. I couldn’t go back.”

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Main building, Ellis Island. Public domain.

Waiting in the Registry Room

The National Park Service estimates about 5,000 people went through inspections on days ships came in. Ferries brought immigrants from ships to the entrance to Ellis Island, hundreds, even thousands at a time. Then they had to wait. The wait could be hours at a time, depending on how many ships arrived that day. It was tedious, it was boring, but for most, it was more bureaucratic than terrifying. Immigrants were asked if they had money and a specific destination address to ensure they would not be without resources for immediate needs upon entering the mainland. Officials asked them why they left their homeland. But for most, it was just a few hours of boredom before officials released them to the United States mainland. But for others, it was an anxiety-riddled, multi-day wait while Ellis Island officials decided their fate.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Wisconsin River near Spring Green. Corey Coyle (2013, CC 3.0)

Detained for Paperwork problems

German immigrant Joseph Haas arrived at Ellis Island when he was fourteen, headed to relatives in Spring Green, Wisconsin. His travel companions received white cards before they boarded the ferry from their ship to Ellis Island. But the shipboard doctor doing some preliminary onboard exams gave Haas a yellow card, indicating his case would be decided by the Board of Special Inquiry. Haas didn’t know why. He says, “…when they walked down that ramp, most guys had a while card went to a different direction, see. And I got to the gate. All of a sudden, the guy grabbed the yellow card, and the officer grabbed me by the shoulder, opened the door, and pushed me in the Ellis, into that chamber.” Nobody told Haas why he was detained, nor spoke enough German to answer his questions. “It was kind of a sad place.”

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Immigrants in ‘pens’ awaiting their turn for processing, 1906. Underwood and Underwood, Library of Congress, public domain.

Waiting at Ellis Island…and Bored

Haas waited eleven days, wondering why he couldn’t leave, sitting bored in the waiting areas. He compared the waiting room to a church, “it was just the way it was pews, you know. And you just slid down the pews till you got to the end.” He had money, he had a place to go, but the problem was his paperwork. The line declaring where he would be working or going to school, proving he had somewhere to go, was blank. Ellis Island officials mailed the paperwork to his Spring Green relatives to finish filling it out and send it back. Ellis Island officials detained Haas while he waited for the paperwork to be sorted out and sent back, but never told him why. Haas didn’t find out his detention was for paperwork until he arrived in Spring Green and asked relatives what happened.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Hearing room, Ellis Island. Carol Highsmith, public domain.

Special Inquiry Waiting Rooms

For some detainees, the multi-day wait included pleading their case before a Special Inquiry hearing committee, which was enough to shake the most stoic traveler. Detainees waiting for their hearing packed into a room with only fifty seats, forcing some to sit on the floor. Ellis Island Commissioner Frederick Wallis (served 1920 – 1921) said of the floor, “…when you walked on the tiled floor you would slip in the slime.” Detainees could have witnesses come testify on their behalf, a challenging experience unto itself. On busy days, there might be three hundred people who came to Ellis Island to serve as a witness. They would have to wait for up to five or six hours, standing in a line that extended outside of the inquiry room and down a staircase. The room itself was packed, as Commissioner William Williams observed, “to suffocation. It contains no toilet facilities.”

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Italian woman and child newly arrived at Ellis Island, 1905. Preus Museum, Public domain.

Separation for Inspection

Immigrant families were split into two lines; women and children to one side, men and boys over 15 years to the other. Czechoslovakian Immigrant Annie Turner describes her experience passing through Ellis Island as an anxious one. After reaching Ellis Island, her family quickly found their luggage. Shortly afterward, her father had to separate from Annie and her mother. Her father was upset because, as she recalls, he said “Mother has all the money. What will I do?” Most of their money was in gold, in bags tied into her skirts for safekeeping. The family was detained for three days, finding their luggage and undergoing medical inspections. Ellis Island doctors had to find out what vaccinations they had in Czechoslovakia and whether they needed more vaccinations, and whether they had enough money to avoid being destitute upon arrival on the mainland.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Jewish immigrants inspected at Ellis Island, c. 1917. Eye chart in Hebrew. Library of Congress, Public domain.

Ellis Island Health Inspections

1891 U.S. immigration law required all immigrants to have a health inspection. Public Health Service physicians examined the immigrants for sixty health conditions; failing any one might require the immigrant to be detained until they were given a clean bill of health, or deported. Ellis Island historian Barry Moreno told the History Channel that doctors developed a coded system to communicate with each other by the peak years, around 1907. Inspectors used chalk to mark the immigrants on their clothing signaling medical conditions. Moreno explains, “‘H’ indicated heart trouble suspected; ‘L’ suspected lameness; ‘X’ suspected feeble-mindedness, and so on.” He further details how ‘marked’ immigrants, about 10% of the total immigrants undergoing health inspections, had to wait in the “doctor’s pen,” until they could undergo more intense examination. But doctors ‘passed’ some that would have otherwise failed inspection, as there wasn’t room enough to detain all afflicted immigrants.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Trachoma inspection at Ellis Island, 1910. NIAID, CC 2.0.

Ellis Island Eye Inspections were Terrifying

One of the most pervasive tales from Ellis Island has inspectors using long, sharp hooks to hold back eyelids for eye inspections. This procedure has become part of the mythology of the facility, turning it from a simple bureaucratic process to a fearsome ordeal. This procedure was of the important health checks for immigrants coming through Ellis Island. Examiners often did, in fact, use a button hook to check eyes for symptoms of trachoma, a bacterial eye infection that can lead to vision deficiency or blindness. In the era before antibiotics, three out of four trachoma patients went blind. U.S. officials were concerned that eventual loss of sight would mean the incoming immigrant wouldn’t be able to earn a living and become reliant on public aid. According to nonprofit Save Ellis Island, inspectors disinfected the button hook with diluted Lysol before using it on the next person in line.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Ellis Island psychiatric ward today. National Park Service (2007), public domain.

Mental Competence

United States officials were quite concerned about the immigrant’s ability to work. Part of the medical inspection was gauging mental fitness and competence to work. They would watch immigrants for signs of physical or mental deficiency as soon as they entered the doors. Officials did not want immigrants to enter the United States and have to rely on public aid or “likely to become a public charge.” If the immigrant had severe signs of mental incompetence, the immigrant could be deported. One anecdote cited on the Save Ellis Island tour has an unnamed woman undergoing interrogation to figure out her mental fitness during her inspection. They asked her about the right way to wash stairs, from the top down, or bottom up. Showing a sharp wit, she shot back at them, “Sir, I did not come to America to wash stairs.”

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Ellis Island hospital wing. National Park Service, public domain.

Ellis Island Convalescent Wards

Failing a health inspection didn’t automatically mean deportation. Ellis Island officials only rejected 1% of the immigrants for a medical condition. Some medical conditions were temporary and would result in a stay in the island’s hospitals on the south side of the island. This area included measles wards and psychiatric facilities for further evaluation and convalescence. Isolating disease, sanitation practices, and good ventilation helped keep conditions like measles from spreading into New York’s general population by holding the contagious afflicted in these wards. But it wasn’t just the patient confined to these wards – if one of their party was detained in the hospital wing, the family members and others traveling with them would also be detained for the duration of the illness, to prevent the illness from spreading into the American population.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Children inspected by Ellis Island health officer during typhus scare. makviragok, Public Domain.

Waiting for the Sick to Get Better on Ellis Island

Latvian immigrant Naomi Fader recalls staying on Ellis Island when she was thirteen, detained for days because of her mother’s illness. Fader stayed in the dormitories on the women’s side as her mother recovered. She recalls visiting her mother in the facility’s hospital. She would have to sign out of the dormitory so room supervisors could count detainees on their way in and out. “Oh, they counted you wherever you went.” Fader continues, “I was never in the jail, I was never in the police station, but I knew that they keep counting the “prisoners.” She would leave the dormitory building and cross over into the hospital buildings. She could only visit her mother through a window. Her mother never discussed her experience at the Ellis Island hospital, as “Mothers don’t tell children bad things… She was they type that everything was good.”

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Ellis Island morgue. Rhododendrites, 2018, CC4.0.

Death and Life on Ellis Island

Not everyone recovered and went on their way. 3,500 people, about 1.6 of those confined to the Ellis Island hospitals, died from their illnesses. Hospital staff took these souls to the hospital’s morgue. If nobody claimed the deceased, they went to cemeteries like Hart Island, New York’s largest potter’s field, and buried in a pauper’s grave. Conversely, 350 babies were born at the island’s ultramodern hospital facility. New parents excited about their upcoming admittance to the United States and grateful for the kindness of the hospital staff would often name them after the doctor or nurse who took care of them.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Finnish stowaway detained at Ellis Island. Public domain.


For those not given approval for entry into the United States either for not meeting a restriction or having to wait out an illness, Ellis Island became a temporary home for days, weeks, sometimes months. In 1907, a particularly busy year for the island, one in ten of the immigrants processed through Ellis Island were detained, left to stay in the detainee dormitories or hospital wing for an unknown amount of time. While they had a dormitory room and three meals a day for the duration of their stay, they were detained until their issue resolved. Most cases, like immigrants waiting for money to arrive or proof of a destination address, resolved in a day or two. But some cases lingered on. Moreno notes these cases might be issues of questionable morality, suspected radicalism, or “immigrants who were being brought in to break strikes.”

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Ellis Island dormitory room. O (2007), Public domain.

Dorm Life

Detainees confined on Ellis Island had a berth in one of the dormitories on the island. Each dormitory room could hold around 300 people. Still, they were always full. Some dormitory rooms had triple-level bunk beds to accommodate so many people. The bunk beds were not exactly luxurious. The beds were metal frames with wire mesh or canvas to lay on, adjustable to create more waiting space. Detainees were given blankets, but no sheets or pillows. While this arrangement was far from luxurious, it was a bed under a roof at the very least. But the class distinctions of the ships they took from Europe to America held fast; the rare detainees from the first and second class on their ships stayed in areas with plenty of space and amenities. These lucky souls had beds with mattresses, sheets, and pillows with fresh pillowcases.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Registry Room, Ellis Island. Edwin Levick,

Ellis Island, the Island of Tense Waiting

For adults detained in the dormitory, the experience was excruciatingly dull. When Ellis Island historians asked German immigrant Joseph Haas what he did for the eleven days he was detained on the island, he responded , “Nothing. Just sit on the bench.” He explained that the windows stayed shut so people couldn’t see the harbor, and officials didn’t allow detainees to go outside, possibly out of fear they’d run away. At night, officials yelled out “Sleep, schlafen,” and other words to say it was time for the detainees to go to bed. Haas remembers the blankets (no pillows) thrown at them at bedtime. Detainees had to stay in the dormitories until morning. Haas claims dorm staff poked the men with metal rods in the morning to wake them up. The men were then quickly into the dining hall for breakfast, a high point of the day.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Final discharge at Ellis Island, 1902. Library of Congress, public domain.

Detainees Always Had to Worry

While Haas experienced the more heavy-handed treatment of the men’s dorm, immigrant Mary Belemjian, arrived at Ellis Island from Turkey in 1922 when she was fifteen years old, recalls Ellis Island quite differently. Her father did not pass the health examination, resulting in a four-day stay on the island. “They thought he had something wrong with his eye.” Her family was detained until his eye problem cleared up. Belemjian recalls, “It was a beautiful place, and they were feeding us, you know, but we were so scared that they were going to send us back, we didn’t enjoy it. But if were didn’t scared [sic], it was a nice place.”

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Immigrant boy carries luggage at Ellis Island. Public domain.

The Children of Ellis Island

Children at Ellis Island, under Commissioner Frederick Howe’s reforms, had the choice of going to school if they were detained for several days or more. The school was optional; every day, the Red Cross and Congregational Church, partnered with immigrant aid societies, went to the detention areas to ask the children of they wanted to go to school. The younger children, around ages ten to fourteen, took them up on the offer much more than older children. The schoolchildren would line up and head to the school area and the playground on the roof of one of the buildings. Because of the transitory nature of the children, who might be detained only for days or weeks, the school curriculum was light. Teachers focused the academic instruction on things students would need to know as citizens, some English language and information about their new country.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Children at Ellis Island wearing information tags. Public domain.

Americanized Education

Instead of the traditional academic education, Ellis Island teachers focused on preparing children for their life in the United States. Italian immigrant Angela Pirrone (Weinkam) arrived at Ellis Island in 1924 from Italy. She and her mother, hospitalized after inspection, remained on the island for a month. Weinkam recalls learning English, as does Naomi Fader, an immigrant from Latvia. In an interview with Ellis Island oral historians, Fader says, “I leaned English. I learned to count. And they, they had a school here for the children. It was lovely. They sang American songs.” The Daughters of the American Revolution taught the children about American culture, history, civics, and what it meant to be a good citizen. The school also kept the children occupied with arts and crafts, music, physical activity, and every child’s favorite time of day, snacks. Weinkam remembers having graham crackers and milk every afternoon at 3:30 pm.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Ellis Island dining hall. Public domain. New York Public Library.

Ellis Island Dining Room

The immigrants processed through Ellis Island could be there for days, even months. Inevitably, they would get hungry. By law, Ellis Island officials had to supply food for anyone required to stay for an extended period. They needed a dining hall that could accommodate hundreds of people at a time, and a kitchen that could manage the massive amount of food they had to prepare. A typical menu would include bread, beef stew, stewed prunes, and boiled potatoes. The menu would accommodate some religious requirements. Jewish immigrants received smoked or pickled herring from the kosher kitchen built in 1911. Other days the menu would add stewed prunes, bananas, and even ice cream. Women and children received graham crackers and milk twice a day. There was always plenty of food, but for the immigrants, it wasn’t always a fine dining experience.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Immigrants having a meal at the Ellis Island dining hall. New York Public Library, public domain.

The Food was Strange and Off-Putting

American cuisine was strange and off-putting for some immigrants. One Italian immigrant, Orteste Teglia, went through Ellis Island in 1916 as a child. She recalled her disgust at trying oatmeal. She said, “We got oatmeal for breakfast, and I didn’t know what it was, with the brown sugar on it, you know. I couldn’t get myself to eat it. So I put it on the windowsill, let the birds eat it.” Carol Rapson described her grandmother’s confusing welcome to American cuisine to Smithsonian magazine. Rapson recalls Ellis Island staff giving her grandmother a banana. “She did not know what to do with it, as she had never seen a banana before. She watched, and when others peeled the banana, she did the same.” Her husband wasn’t so lucky; someone convinced him to eat the yellow skin and throw away the middle as a prank.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Ellis Island dining room. Public domain.

The Food Wasn’t Just Bad, It Was Horrific

But even this fare was luxurious compared to the food private contractors Hudgins & Dumas served. In 1913, the Department of Labor investigated claims that the kitchen served immigrants gut-twisting food like old, stale bread, spoiled meat, and pies made with apple cores and skins. Contractors Hudgins & Dumas were accused of serving scrap meat, mainly trimmings and neck pieces, in place of roast beef. “A good deal of the time I was there” former chef Jacob Minstermann testified about the meat he served to immigrants, “the food which we served was not fit to eat.” Minstermann additionally said of the meat, “I was told to trim it off and make the best of it.” When the Hudgins and Dumas contract came up for renewal in 1916, Ellis Island Commissioner Frederick Howe refused to renew it, citing their efforts to increase by reducing portion sizes and quality.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Immigrants moving through Registry Room at Ellis Island, c. 1907 – 1917. Public domain.

Narrowing the Gate

In 1907, immigration laws tightened. Immigrants had to have at least twenty-five US dollars. They had to have the mental ability for employment. Lone children could not enter the United States alone. The United States prohibited people with discernible mental illness, at the time crudely called “idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, the feeble-minded, [and] insane.” Those labeled as having a mental condition were detained in the Psychopathic Ward on Ellis Island until they were deported or successfully plead their case for entry. The 1907 restrictions were just the start. In the years up to, during, and following World War I, the United States began tightening the requirements necessary for immigrant entry. Immigrants had to pass a literary test. Any new arrival over 16 years old had to be able to read 30 to 40 words in their native language. The literacy test was mandatory at Ellis Island until 1952.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Radicals rounded up in New York area raids awaiting deportation, 1920. Public domain.

Ellis Island was a Detention Center for Radicals

After World War I, the United States entered a period of “Red Scare.” People suspected of supporting communism and Bolshevism were treated with suspicion. Labor unrest and unionization swept through immigrant-dominated jobs like mining, metal production, meatpacking, and other manufacturers. A bomb targeting Attorney General Mitchell Palmer in 1919 (but killing only the bomber) prompted the United States to round up and deport “alien reds” without a warrant. There were raids of union halls and other meeting spaces. Ellis Island was the holding point for the deportees. When Howe was the Commissioner, the City of New York rounded up 697 people, but only deported 60. But when Howe left, Acting Commissioner Byron Uhl increased the number of deportations. This image shows anarchists, Communists, and other political radicals rounded up in New York City, Newark, and other nearby raids in 1920, detaining them at Ellis Island during deportation proceedings.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Ellis Island United States Immigration Services cap, Ellis Island artifact. National Park Service, public domain.

Ellis Island Officials Made Immigrants “Swear Off” Their Homeland

Before German immigrant Joseph Haas was released from his paperwork-based detention, he had to persuade Ellis Island immigration officials that he intended to be a loyal American. He arrived at Ellis Island in 1922, when mistrust of Germans and German-Americans was still festering after World War I. Officials took Haas to a separate room and asked why he left Germany. Haas explained that he was one of eight children, and food was scarce. He says officials made him “swear off” Germany, and asked whether he would be “against the United States.” He said he wasn’t, nor was his family. The officials debated whether Haas, at fourteen, was too young to be politically active and a potential radical. They found he wasn’t likely to be a threat to America, and after making sure his paperwork was (finally) in order, released him to go to his Spring Green, Wisconsin destination.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Russian Jewish girl at Ellis Island, 1905. Public domain.

Desperate Times

World War I brought a new level of difficulty for the immigrants trying to enter the United States through Ellis Island. Some immigrants didn’t pass the required inspections for passage to the mainland. They would normally be deported, but during the war, some immigrants could not be sent back. They would remain detained for an undetermined amount of time, sometimes years, a person without a country. Commissioner Frederick Howe tried to help these immigrants by giving them more freedom to socialize, and would occasionally helped reclassify an immigrant as “feebleminded.” This allowed the immigrant passage to the United States on bond. Visitors were allowed twice a week. Despite Howe’s efforts for reforms, detainees still felt like they were in prison.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Main hall at Ellis Island. Public domain.

Immigration Restrictions in the 1920s

The volume of immigrants coming into the United States at this time was worrisome to citizens already in the country. They were concerned about new immigrants taking jobs, taking land, and spreading radical ideas like communism and labor unrest. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 slowed the immigration inflow. Additionally, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924, putting further restrictions on who could enter the country. Immigrants with college degrees and desirable skills were often welcome, and there was overall acceptance of immigrants from the norther region such as Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries. But southern and eastern Europeans, and Japan in particular, were under heavy restrictions – a move that irritated the Japanese government, as they had collaborated with President Theodore Roosevelt to increase immigration quotas from Japan. Japan declared May 26 as a national day of humiliation, and added to the rift between the two nations.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Ellis Island registry room window. Pom’ via Flickr (2019, CC 2.0)

Ellis Island Denies a Soldier’s Wife

In 2020, Time magazine featured the story of Immigrant Ellen Knauff, a German-born employee of the UK Royal Air Force and US Army who married a United States soldier during World War II. Traditionally this would have meant smooth passage into the United State. Curiously, upon her arrival at Ellis Island in 1949, inspection officials detained her – for two years – as a threat to national security. But nobody would tell her why. She argued her case all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court affirmed the decisions to keep her out, citing broad powers of denying immigrant entry. When she was finally granted the hearing, the government revealed they had detained her for being a Communist spy based on witness testimony. But there was no actual evidence to support this claim; it was all hearsay. Knauff finally left Ellis Island in 1951.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Dilapidated buildings at Ellis Island. Basvb (2009, CC3.0)

Ellis Island in Decline

In 1924, Presidents Harding and Coolidge enacted the Immigration Quota Act, reducing the inflow to Ellis Island. This restricted the number of immigrants allowed based on their country of origin. Immigration would slow further in the 1930s in the throes of the Great Depression. For the first time in United States history, more people were leaving the country than trying to arrive. The McCarren-Walter Act of 1952 revised immigration quotas to include small numbers from previously restricted China and Japan. It also reduced quotas elsewhere under the guise of stopping the spread of communism. But the number of detainees slowed significantly. Ellis Island closed in November of 1954.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1959. Public domain.

Why Did Ellis Island Close?

Ellis Island closed as mass immigration processing slowed to a crawl due to the tightened immigration quotas passed in the 1920s. By the early 1950s, it was more a detention center than an inspection site as President Dwight Eisenhower tried to make immigration processing more “humane.” In 1954, it closed for good. The United States government wanted detention to be an exception, not the automatic default for people who didn’t pass inspection. Immigrants could live where they pleased while they went through the review process for citizenship. This was Eisenhower’s attempt to make immigration laws more humane. Ellis Island buildings fell into disrepair, and the facility became more of a financial burden than it was worth.

Scary Firsthand Accounts Of Immigrants Entering Ellis Island
Ellis Island main building. Armando Olivo Martin del Campo (2019, CC 4.0)

Ellis Island Today

Eleven years after Ellis Island closed, President Lyndon Johnson, understanding the importance of Ellis Island as part of about 40% of the population’s heritage, declared Ellis Island a National Monument under the Antiquities Act. It is currently operated and supported under the U.S. National Park Service. In 1984, the National Park Service and nonprofits like Save Ellis Island stabilized several abandoned buildings. The infamous Main Building underwent significant preservation and restoration work, opening in 1990 for public tours as a museum and historic site. Visitors to New York can plan a day trip to visit both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis National Museum of Immigration and explore the corridors where nervous immigrants like Joseph Haas, Orteste Teglia, and Ellen Knauff waited – sometimes for nerve-wracking yet tedious days, weeks, even months – to see if they would be permitted to fulfill their dream and become an American.

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

A tour of Ellis Island’s abandoned hospital complex reveals a historic – and complicated – gateway to America. Alexandra Charitan, 10 June 2019.

Before Ebola, Ellis Island’s terrifying medical inspections. Dr. Howard Markel, PBS News Hour, 15 October 2014.

Ellis Island. Editors, Updated 13 February 2023.

Ellis Island, National Park Service (n.d.)

Ellis Island a welcome site? Only after years of reform. Henry P. Guzda, U.S Department of Labor, Monthly Labor Review. July 1986.

Ellis Island chef served bad meat: Tells investigators it was sold to immigrants and contractors knew it. (n.a.) New York Times, 10 September 1913.

Ellis Island welcomed thousands to America – but it was also a detention center. César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, Time Magazine, 1 January 2020.

Encountering Ellis Island: How European immigrants entered America. Ronald H. Baylor, 2014. Johns Hopkins Press.

Ellis Island Oral History Library. (n.a.) Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. (n.d.)

The foods that passed through Ellis Island. Lisa Bramen, Smithsonian Magazine, 6 January 2010.