Ellis Island History


Closing the Open Door

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, anti-immigration sentiment and isolationist hostilities were at their highest. Congress had just passed legislation, over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson, requiring immigrants to pass a literacy test, and barring virtually all immigration from Asia. The activities of the Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1915, would reach their greatest support by 1920, and their voice echoed that of restrictionists who denounced immigrants as racially inferior, drawing an alarming portrait of an impoverished, criminal, radical, and diseased invading horde. Violent strikes and a rash of bombings followed the outbreak of the war, prompting the Department of Justice to order the arrest of aliens suspected of communist or anarchist sympathies. As immigrants faced hostilities from all sides, Ellis Island's role quickly changed from a depot to that of a detention center. The Red Scare saw hundreds of aliens rounded up and detained at Ellis Island. In addition, over the next year 1,800 German merchant mariners, their ships seized at East Coast ports, were added to the Island's population. "I have become a jailer," Commissioner Frederic C. Howe wrote despondently in 1919 as the wave of anti-immigration hysteria swept the country. With Atlantic ports and shipping lanes closed to commercial traffic, immigration dropped significantly with the start of World War I. In 1915 Ellis Island admitted 178,000 people. By 1919 that number fell to 26,000. With the war's end thousands of refugees from Europe's war damaged areas sailed to the U.S., as did immigrants still holding tickets purchased in 1914. By 1920, immigration had risen again-to a brisk 225,206 arrivals annually. In 1921 the numbers climbed back to prewar figures of 560,971. For six years the war had delayed the reunion of family and friends, and the postwar immigration crush caught Ellis Island with its resources badly depleted. Experienced staff had been laid off during wartime and the Registry Room, which had been used by the U. S. Army as a ward for wounded servicemen, badly needed repairs and cleaning. Unfortunately, peace overseas did not bring peace at home. World War I had crystallized anti-immigration sentiment. Nativists continued to criticize the nation's ability to assimilate the flood-tide of "human flotsam," and popular tunes such as Neel and Clark's 1923 song O! Close the Gates called for a halt to immigration "before this mob from Europe shall drag our Colors down." Restrictionists in Congress remained vigilant in their warnings about the "danger of the melting pot," and on May l9, l92l succeeded in pressuring President Warren G. Harding into signing the first Quota Act. This law effectively ended America's open-door policy by setting monthly quotas, limiting admission of each nationality to three percent of its representation in the U.S. Census of 1910. Passengers considered excess quota were automatically excluded. Immigration was now more than ever a game of numbers. Steamships jockeyed for position at the mouth of New York Harbor to steam across at the stroke of midnight each month. The 1924 National Origins Act made further cuts by limiting immigration from any nation to two percent of its representation in the 1890 census. The bill's sponsors made no attempt to conceal its discriminatory intent-directed at restricting "less desirable" immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Very quickly, the gateway to the promised land had all but slammed shut. The National Origins Act also allowed prospective immigrants to undergo inspection before they left their country of origin, making the trip to Ellis Island unnecessary. Shortly after the Act went into effect Ellis Island "looked like a deserted village," commented one official. In 1931 Labor Secretary William Doak declared that he would rid the economically depressed nation of "everyone who cannot prove he is a lawful resident here," and in 1932, for the first time ever, more aliens left the country than arrived. By 1937 the island's population had dwindled to about 160 deportees and 30 detained immigrants, mostly Chinese children whose parents, already living in the U.S., had to prove their citizenship.In the 1940s Ellis Island experienced a renewed flurry of activity. Japanese, German, and Italian citizens were detained on the island during World War II, and later the International Security Act bolstered the detainee population with suspected Communists and Fascists. When Ellis Island's administration moved to an office in Manhattan in 1943, the detained enemy aliens at the station numbered about one thousand. The Coast Guard had also taken up residence on the island, using the main Hospital complex for office and storage space, but by 1949 officials were already discussing closing the old immigration depot. Ellis Island was becoming too costly to run. In 1953 the island's Staff numbered roughly 250, to serve approximately 230 detained immigrants. A 1954 Justice Department ruling, which gave detained aliens parole until their cases could be heard by a ruling board, finally closed Ellis Island's doors on November 19. Its last resident, detainee Arne Peterson, a seaman who had overstayed his shore leave, was granted parole and ferried back to the mainland.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch,whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. "Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she With silent lips "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

-Emma Lazarus, 1883


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