As we wrestle with the myriad issues of immigration — legal vs. illegal immigrants, border security, assimilation, citizenship — are there lessons to be learned from past waves of immigration? An estimated 34 million people sought freedom and opportunity in America during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The first wave came in the 1840s, fleeing starvation and the disruptions of the Industrial Revolution, most of them from Ireland, England, Germany and Scandinavia.
They made a colorful lot, wrote a historian: Bearded Russian Jews, Greeks in pantaloons and slippers, Italians with large waxed mustaches, Cossacks with their swords, English in knickers, Arabs in long robes. They willingly crowded into sailing vessels that took months to make the Atlantic crossing. These earlier ships were no better than “open-air barges,” freezing in the winter, sweltering in the summer, and without adequate toilets and medical equipment. But the arrivals believed that America offered them a golden chance for freedom and opportunity.
A second wave of immigrants poured out of Southern and Eastern Europe from 1890 to 1924 — Jews and Italians, Croats and Poles and Irish, and always more Irish. They boarded steam-powered vessels that reduced the time to reach the New World to two weeks. Their destination was fabled Ellis Island in New York Harbor, a short distance from the iconic Statue of Liberty. The voyage was no Caribbean cruise. A Russian Jew recalled that “the atmosphere [in steerage] was so thick and dense with smoke and bodily odors that your head itched, and when you went to scratch your head you got lice in your hands.”
It was in the Great Registry Hall that the immigrants were inspected for diseases and questioned about their age, occupation, marital status, and destination. The hall was a veritable “tower of Babel” echoing with nearly all the languages of the world. It took an average of five hours to pass inspection. Public Health Service doctors looked for anyone who coughed or limped. As the historian Colin Hamblin has written, children were asked their names to determine they were not deaf or dumb. The sick were taken to Ellis Island Hospital for treatment and care and once recovered were allowed to continue inspection. Those with incurable diseases were returned to their port of departure.
Concerned about welfare demands from impoverished immigrants, Congress in 1882 began excluding those “liable to become a public charge.” In the early 1900s, our government added a basic literacy test.
The Ellis Island authorities were firm but fair: Only two percent of immigrants were denied entry. The overwhelming majority were directed to the railroad ticket office and trains headed west and north. A sizeable number had a happy reunion with relatives who lived and worked in Manhattan. One immigrant recalled that as a child, she saw a “beautiful” man approaching her — “I didn’t know he was my father. I fell in love with him and he with me.”
Immigration dropped to almost nothing during World War I, but rose sharply in 1919 and 1920, causing public apprehension about America’s ability to assimilate large numbers of foreigners. Washington acted promptly. President Warren Harding in 1921 signed the first Quota Act that limited admission of each nationality to three percent of its representation in the U.S. Census of 1910. More restrictions were added with the 1924 National Origins Act that limited immigration from any nation to two percent of its representation in the 1890 census. The intent was clear: To restrict “less desirable” immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.
But it must be remembered that the “undesirables”— Irish, Italians, Poles, Slovaks, Lithuanians and all the others — helped to transform America. They worked in factories, built bridges and dams, tilled the soil, started businesses large and small, became policemen and fire fighters, ran for office, and entertained us (God bless Irving Berlin for “God Bless America”).
In November 1954, with only a few hundred detained aliens in residence, the government finally closed the doors of Ellis Island. Its last resident, detainee Arne Peterson, a seaman who had overstayed his shore leave, was granted parole and ferried to the mainland. Today Ellis Island has been wonderfully restored and is well worth the visit.
We are now in different times with far different challenges. We should not romanticize the Ellis Island experience, but there are things to be learned. Above all else, the immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries accepted America’s right to determine and enforce its immigration rules.
Prudent immigration and early assimilation mostly in our schools worked well for a century and a half. Over 100 million Americans — nearly one-third of our population — can trace their ancestry to a man, woman or child who “went from a steamship to a ferry to the inspection lines in the Great Registry Room at Ellis Island.” That is a mighty foundation on which to welcome new arrivals who truly seek to become Americans.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times