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World: Ellis Island -- Isle of Tears

  • Julie Moffett



Washington, 12 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - For more than 12 million immigrants Ellis Island was a gateway to America and a new life, an Isle of Hope. But for the thousands who were turned away at America's doorstep, the island became known as the Isle of Tears.

About 20 percent of the immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island were detained for one reason or another. Of this 20 percent, two percent were turned away for good.

Immigrants had to pass many tests. In addition to medical and mental examinations, they also had to show they would not become a burden on society.

In order to do this, immigrants had to prove they had the skill or the strength to support themselves in America. They were questioned in detail about previous occupations and moral beliefs.

Additionally, all immigrants had to show some amount of money to prove they were not destitute. How much money each immigrant was expected to have was left to the discretion of each inspector.

In 1909, that rule changed amid growing anti-immigrantion sentiment in the United States. For a short time, immigrants were required to have railroad tickets to their final destinations and at least the equivalent of 25 dollars. Fortunately, the new rule lasted only a few months and was withdrawn as a result of intense lobbying from pro-immigration forces.

Yet as more and more immigrants arrived, anti-immigrant feelings grew and took root in the United States.

The Ku Klux Klan, an anti-immigrant, racially intolerant organization founded in the southern part of the U.S. in 1915, began stepping up its activities among Americans in an attempt to paint immigrants as racially inferior, impoverished and diseased.

As a result of the growing outcry against immigrants, in 1917 the U.S. Congress passed a law over the veto and strenuous objections of then U.S. President Woodrow Wilson requiring that all immigrants sixteen years or older pass a literacy test.

The test was intended to reduce the number of immigrants who had no schooling. Anti-immigration forces, which included many members of the U.S. Congress, considered illiterate immigrants to be potential burdens on society.

The literacy test required all immigrants to read a 40-word text in their native language. In most cases, the test consisted of the reading of several passages from the Bible, some of which were purposely chosen to humilate or frighten the immigrants.

For example, Serbians were required to read this passage from the Book of James:

"Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire."

But many immigration officers were lenient when it came to the test. Among the numerous interviews of the Ellis Island oral history library, John Alabilikian, an Armenian who immigrated to America in 1922, recalled the literacy test that his aunt had to take.

Alabilikian said: "My aunt, being the oldest, she could not read. The interpreter, an Armenian, he says, 'Just take the book and say the Lord's Prayer.' And that's what she recited, looking at the book like she was reading it. Of course, everybody -- I'm pretty sure -- the judge knew and interpreter knew this was done, but they wanted to make it legal. So, that's how we got through."

Americans were also horrified by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, prompting what was known as the "Red Scare." Hundreds of legally-admitted immigrants from Russia and eastern Europe were arrested or detained and brought back to Ellis Island under the suspicion that they harbored communist sympathies.

Ellis Island quickly turned from an immigration station to a detention center.

From 1917 to 1920, immigration to the United States dropped dramatically. Part of the reason was the strong isolationist tendencies among Americans as well as the preoccupation of much of Europe and the U.S. with the first World War.

After the war, European refugees again began coming to the United States. But anti-immigration sentiment in America had not abated much.

By 1921, the U.S. Congress had pressured then U.S. President Warren Harding into signing the Quota Act. It put limits on the number of immigrants from each country.

Three years later, in 1924, another law, the National Origins Act, was approved by Congress. It limited immigration even further by reducing the number of immigrants from each country to two percent of its nation's representation in the U.S. Census of 1890.

This law was specifically discriminatory against eastern and southern Europeans, particularly Jews. Moreover, the law's authors in Congress made no attempt to hide that they wanted to limit the immigration of these "less desirable" peoples.

Immigration came to a near halt in the early 1930's when the United States went through a severe economic depression. In 1932, for the first time in America's history, more people left the United States than arrived.

But this was little consolation for the two percent of immigrants -- or approximately 250,000 people -- who arrived at Ellis Island with great hopes and dreams for a new life in America. For those who were not allowed to enter, the island truly became an Isle of Tears.

Historical records document heart-wrenching cases of families being divided or not being able to rejoin those who were already admitted to America.

Some immigrants never left. Over the course of its six decades as an immigration station, more than 3,500 immigrants died at Ellis Island -- 1,400 of them children. There were also three suicides.

By the mid 1950's, immigration through Ellis Island had slowed to a crawl. Air travel had become more popular and for most immigrants it was now becoming more efficient and cost effective to come to America by air instead of by ship.

By 1953, there were more staff than immigrants on Ellis Island. The immigration station was becoming too expensive for the American government to operate.

Finally, on November 29, 1954, the immigration station on Ellis Island closed its doors for good.



This is the second in a three-part series on Ellis Island. See Part-one World: Ellis Island -- Isle of Hope and part-three World: Ellis Island - Restoration of a Historical Landmark.
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