When I speak at community meetings, it is almost inevitable that someone stands up and tells me that when his great-grandfather came over from Germany in the 1870s he did it the right way, not like these immigrants today. "He came legally and had to pass a bunch of tests at Ellis Island, he had to have a sponsor to vouch for him and only then was he allowed in." The person then usually says "We need a new Ellis Island."
Of course, when his great-grandfather came, there were no tests for newly arriving immigrants, anyone who wanted to come could immigrate here (so long as they weren't Chinese), so saying he came legally is meaningless, and the Ellis Island immigration station did not exist.
In fact, if your ancestors came before 1892, they definitely did not come through Ellis Island.
But since so many people think their families got their start there, the truth may be less relevant than the perception.
I am always on the lookout for books on American immigration history, so I was happy to come across a new history of Ellis Island. American Passage, unfortunately, is only partially successful in telling the story of the iconic place of American immigration.
There are many ways to tell the story of Ellis Island. Vincent Cannato chooses to begin his telling with the story of feuds between various officials at the immigration station. Bureaucratic infighting is rarely interesting, and the fights among the big-wigs at Ellis are no different. The first third of the book is taken up with who said what to who sort of nonsense. Hardly a grabber.
And, while the next two hundred pages do a good job of describing the Ellis Island experiences of immigrants and immigration officials, the final fifty pages discussing the legacy of Ellis offer few real insights.
This book is only half full.
But let me dwell on what was useful in the book, without necessarily recommending that you read it.
First, Ellis was a place where until 1920 just about any white immigrant seeking to come into the U.S. was allowed to enter.
No visas. No limits on the number of immigrants. No extensive medical exams. No police background checks.
Less than 2% of those showing up at Ellis were turned away.
Second, Ellis became a place of exclusion after World War I because of the threat of Eastern and Southern European immigrants overwhelming America. America at the time was much more heavily immigrant than it is now and immigrants were much less likely to learn English and assimilate. This generated for many white native born citizens a fear of cultural suicide.
For example, a Congressional investigation reported that Slavic and Italian immigrants came to the U.S. to work and send money home, not to put down roots here. The official report described them as eating food "that would nauseate and disgust an American workman. Their habits are vicious, their customs are disgusting."
MIT president Francis Walker described the new immigrants as "ignorant, unskilled, inert."
Alabama Congressman William Oates, who at one time had taken up arms against the United States and killed American soldiers, said there "are thousands of people in this country who should never have been allowed to land here. Many of the Russian Jews are no better than the Italians. Mining camps are overrun with the most beastly ignorant foreign laborers."
When Ellis Island was set up, immigrants were lucky that its first director was a Republican Civil War hero named Col. John Weber. Weber had gone to Europe to study the persecution of the Jews there before serving at Ellis. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was extremely sympathetic to the refugees from the pograms, as well as to other immigrants seeking a better life. A man who had shown bravery in battle, he also displayed moral courage in countering those who disparaged immigrants. He wrote that "the evils of immigration are purely imaginary in some cases, greatly exaggerated in others."
In 1903, 857,000 immigrants passed through Ellis Island in a single year. 60% were Italians, Jews, or Slavs. They were mostly male, unskilled, and nearly half were illiterate. One report claimed that 68% of the Italians couldn't read in any language.They had, on average, $9 ($150 in today's money) in total liquid assets upon arrival and no job waiting.
The director of Ellis Island that year was William Williams, a Puritan throwback. He said that a quarter of all immigrants were of "no benefit to the country". He actively worked with the Immigration Restriction League (IRL) to limit immigration.
The IRL worried about the supplanting of the white race by Jews and Southern and Eastern Europeans. Prescott Hall, the founder of the group asked; "Is there a danger that the race which has made our country great will pass away and that the ideals and institutions which it has cherished will also pass?"
Ellis Island chief Williams shared the racial concerns of the IRL. In his official report on immigration in 1911 he wrote that the "new immigrants proceed from the poorer elements of the countries of southern and eastern Europe and from backward races with customs and institutions widely different from ours and without the capacidty of assimilating with our people... Many possess filthy habits and are of an ignorance which passes belief." In case you missed it, he's talking about your grandparents here if you are Italian, Jewish, or Polish.
When Williams was accused of anti-Semitism after the publication of his report, he responded that he was merely stating "sociological facts".
The IRL began working with the American Breeders Association to advocate for the exclusion of genetically inferior immigrants. IRL chief Prescott Hall, who was himself a sickly depressive, said that our immigration policies should be redesigned to only allow in the genetically superior who would one day breed what he called a "superman to produce a better world."
Williams shared Hall's concern over the poor genetic stock arriving from Eastern and Southern Europe. He brought in a psychologist named Henry Goddard to test new arrivals. Goddard initially found that 83% of Jews and 79% of Italians tested were feebleminded. Goddard complained that Jews could not answer simple questions. For example, when the psychologists asked them to define a table, the Jews would answer that it was place to sit at and eat.
Americans came to fear that mentally deficient immigrants were swamping their mental institutions. This was a false fear, of course, since only 5% of mental patients were immigrants, while they made up 15% of the population of the U.S.
Luckily for the Ellis immigrants, Dr. Howard Knox was placed in charge of certifying the intelligence of immigrants. He disparaged Goddards work saying it used tests designed originally for middle class French school children on working class immigrants. For example, middle-aged Polish peasants were asked to make up poems with particular rhyme schemes.
In another test, immigrants were shown a picture of three young children mourning a dead pet called "Last Honors to Bunny". They were asked to describe it. Cannato writes that; "Hard as it may be to believe, some immigrants had little familiarity with pictures. More importantly, many immigrants were puzzled by what they saw in the drawing. They had rarely seen pets treated well and were not used to seeing rabbits as pets. Some were unfamiliar with the practice of placing flowers on graves."
Knox also mocked Goddard's use of head shapes for classifying people's intelligence. In one case, a man was identified by Goddard's team as low "on the evolutionary scale." When Knox tested him, he found the man spoke three languages fluently and was highly intelligent (if a bit ugly).
World War I was used by the anti-immigrant crowd to pass increasingly restrictionist laws. The new immigration laws cut new arrivals by 75% or more. It even more dramatically redirected 20th Century immigration away from Southern and Eastern Europe. For example, in 1914, 296,414 Italians entered the United States. In 1920, the quota for Italians was reduced to 40,294. By 1924, it was further reduced to just 3,845! Greeks fared even worse. They were cut from 3,000 to only 100!
The Immigration Restriction League appauded the new laws because they had the courage to "discriminate in favor of immigrants from Northern and Western Europe, thus securing immigrants of homogenous stock."
With the passage of the 1924 immigration law, supported by the KKK as well as the IRL, Ellis Island's role as the entry point for new immigrants went into decline. Americans became more interested in slamming the Golden Door shut than in lifting a lantern next to it.