2Immigrants sailed to America in hopes of carving out new destinies for themselves. Most were fleeing religious persecution, political oppression and economic hardship. Thousands of people arrived daily in New York Harbor on steamships from mostly eastern and southern Europe. The first– and second–class passengers were allowed to pass inspection aboard ship and go directly ashore. Only steerage passengers had to take the ferry to Ellis Island for inspection.
3Arrival“We were put on a barge, jammed in so tight that I couldn’t turn ’round. There were so many of us, you see, and the stench was terrible. And when we got to Ellis Island, they put the gangplank down, and there was a man at the foot, and he was shouting, at the top of his voice, ‘Put your luggage here, drop your luggage here. Men this way. Women and children this way.’ Dad looked at us and said, “we’ll meet you back here at this mound of luggage and hope we find it again and see you later.” — Eleanor Kenderdine Lenhart, an English immigrant in 1921, interviewed in 1985.
4Medical Inspection & Eye Exam Trachoma: Trachoma, a highly contagious eye infection that could cause blindness, was a common disease in southeastern Europe but relatively unknown in the United States. It appeared as inflammations on the inner eyelid. Doctors checked for the disease by raising the eyelid with either their fingers, a hairpin, or a buttonhook — a painful, but quick procedure. Since trachoma is difficult to cure, sufferers were generally isolated and sent back to their ports of embarkation at the first opportunity.
5Mental InspectionAccording to a 1917 U.S. Public Health Service manual, 9 out of 100 immigrants were marked with an “X” during the line inspection and were sent to mental examination rooms for further questioning. During this primary examination, doctors first asked the immigrants to answer a few questions about themselves and then to solve simple arithmetic problems or count backward from 20 to 1 or complete a puzzle. Out of the nine immigrants held for this “weeding out” session, perhaps one or two would be detained for a secondary session of more extensive testing.
6Legal InspectionAfter the medical inspection, each immigrant filed up to the inspector’s desk at the far end of the Registry Room for his or her legal examination, an experience that was often compared to the Day of Judgment. To determine an immigrant’s social, economic and moral fitness, inspectors asked a rapid-fire series of questions, such as: Are you married or single? What is your occupation? How much money do you have? Have you ever been convicted of a crime? The interrogation was over in a matter of minutes, after which an immigrant was either permitted to enter the United States or detained for a legal hearing.
7DetentionDuring the peak years of immigration, detention on Ellis Island ran as high as 20 percent for all immigrants inspected. A detainee’s stay could last days or even weeks. Many were women and children who were waiting for a relative to come for them or for money to arrive. Others were waiting for a hearing in front of the board of special inquiry or for a final decision from Washington, D.C. Perhaps the most poignant of the detainees were the families waiting for a sick parent or child to be released from the Ellis Island hospital.
8Free to LandAfter being inspected and receiving permission to leave the island, immigrants could make travel arrangements to their final destinations, get something to eat and exchange their money for American dollars. Relatives and friends who came to Ellis Island for joyous reunions — often after years of separation — could escort the immigrants to their new homes. Immigrants boarded ferries to New York and New Jersey and, at last, were free to land in America.