Ellis Island

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Ellis Island: Isle of Hope or Isle of Tears?

Between 1892 and 1924, over 12 million immigrants arrived in America filled with hopeful anticipation of a new life (National Park Service para 1). Following their long journey by ship across the Atlantic Ocean, the first stop for many immigrants was Ellis Island. First- and second- class cabin passengers, who were immediately cleared for entry into America without being inspected or questioned, referred to Ellis Island as the “Isle of Hope.” For passengers who traveled in the steerage compartment, however, the experience was very different. These immigrants were subjected to medical examinations and interrogations to determine if they were fit for citizenship. For those immigrants who were detained or deported, Ellis Island was known as the “Isle of Tears.” Despite being promoted as a land of equal opportunity, this was not the case for many of the steerage class immigrants when they landed on Ellis Island. “When we arrived on the 26th of December, on a very, very cold winter day, and the passenger ship was fastened to the pier ….the first-class passengers were asked to leave the ship. The second-class passengers followed. Then the announcement went around – all third-class passengers were please to remain on board overnight…. And so there was this slight feeling among many of us that, ‘Isn’t it strange that here we are coming to a country where there is complete equality, but not quite so for the newly arrived immigrants?’ (Reeves 56) Even though they had departed from the same homeland and crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the same ship, the initial experiences of the immigrants when they arrived on Ellis Island were very different for the passengers who traveled in steerage compartments compared to those who were accommodated in first- or second-class cabins. For those passengers who could afford first- or second-class traveling accommodations, the long and exhausting journey was over when they arrived at Ellis Island. Based on the assumption that “anyone who could afford a first-class ticket was unlikely to become a public charge,” the examination for first- class passengers in the ship’s saloon was superficial (Benton 62). Whiles second class passengers were scrutinized a little bit more closely, the inspectors were still only looking for the most despicable or contagious diseases. Unless a first- or second-class cabin passenger had legal problems or was diagnosed with a severe illness, he or she was declared exempt from the admitting process at Ellis Island. Upon arrival at Ellis Island, most first- and second-class passengers disembarked, passed through customs, and received immediate clearance to enter America. For steerage compartment passengers, however, the Ellis Island experience was very different. Many of the immigrants had no idea that they would be examined to see if they were fit enough to be Americans. They thought the ship would just pull up at a New York pier and they would get off. This was true for those immigrants who had the look of the upper class—money, elegant clothes and jewelry, fancy luggage, an educated manner, and a fine, comfortable shipboard cabin. These people simply answered a few polite questions, if any at all, and walked down the gangplank. For the vast majority who crossed the ocean by steerage class – the lowest, meanest, and cheapest way to sail across any ocean- this was not quite the case. Crowded like cattle in damp, smelly holds, they were shocked to learn that they would be kept aboard ship until the better-class immigrant passengers disembarked. (Fisher 27-28) Because of staff shortages, these immigrants often had to wait on ships in the harbor for up to four extra days. Once they were allowed to leave the ship, the immigrants were transported by ferry or barge to Ellis Island. In a 1985 interview, Eleanor Kenderdine Lenhart (a 1921 immigrant from England) described the conditions on the barge to Ellis...
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