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The Inspection And Registration Of Immigrants (1906)

Immigrants Land at Ellis Island

Immigrants Land at Ellis Island

Immigration and Its Effects Upon The United States (Note 90)

The systematic and uniform examination of aliens began with the establishment of the Immigration Bureau in 1891. Under the present law, the Commissioner-General has general supervision of the administration of immigration matters. He can detail officers to visit penal and charitable institutions and ascertain the number of aliens therein, and he may send officers abroad to study conditions of immigration. (Note 91)

The Commissioner-General is under the Secretary of Commerce and Labor, or practically, one of the assistant Secretaries of that department. The Secretary appoints all immigration officers and employees and fixes their compensation.

In spite of the fact that the Bureau has now been in existence fifteen years, the inspection of immigrants varies somewhat at the different ports, according to the number to be inspected, the importance of the port, and the physical accommodations for such service.

Inasmuch as three-fourths of all aliens pass through the port of New York, a brief description of the practical method of inspection there may be of interest.

Registry Hall at Ellis Island

Registry Hall at Ellis Island

When a ship arrives in New York harbor, telegraphic notice of its entrance is sent ahead, and the vessel is boarded by the State quarantine inspectors, and by the immigration inspectors and surgeons.

The State authorities examine first for diseases which would subject the vessel to quarantine, and the immigration inspectors and Marine Hospital officers examine all the first and second cabin passengers. The examination of cabin passengers is a comparatively recent thing and was necessitated by the fact that many inadmissible aliens undertook to travel in the second cabin to avoid inspection.

In the examination of passengers, inspectors can use their discretion as to ask any or all of the questions on the manifests and can avoid absurd and unnecessary inquiries. Upon the completion of the cabin inspection, the ship's surgeon reports any persons in the ship's hospital. If advisable, these are presently transferred to the immigrant hospital.

Inspection Room at Ellis Island

Inspection Room at Ellis Island

The steerage passengers and any other aliens held by the inspectors are then taken with their baggage upon barges and carried to Ellis Island. They enter a large general room separated from the rest of the building by iron gratings.

The main hall, which is on the second floor, is also divided lengthwise by gratings into a series of parallel passageways. Before reaching these, however, immigrants have to pass in single file before two surgeons of the Marine Hospital Service, stationed a little distance apart, who divide the inspection between them, one examining general physique, and the other for trachoma.

Any doubtful individuals are held for a more thorough physical examination, and idiots, insane, and diseased persons are certified as such. Minor defects are noted on the immigrant's card mentioned below, which he has already received on the ship, and he is passed along for general inspection.

Detained Immigrants in a Waiting Room at Ellis Island

Detained Immigrants in a Waiting Room at Ellis Island

The women are examined individually by a matron or her assistants, whose business it is to ascertain whether or not they are pregnant, as this increases the probability of their becoming public charges unless they can produce satisfactory evidence that they will be taken care of and supported.

Women Immigrants are Examined by the Doctors at Ellis Island

Women Immigrants are Examined by the Doctors at Ellis Island

Female Physician Examines a Woman at Ellis Island

Persons with loathsome or dangerous contagious diseases, epileptics, idiots, insane persons, and those physically defective so that they are liable to become public charges, and pregnant women, are at once held for examination before a board of special inquiry.

The remaining immigrants are then segregated into columns which pass down the various passageways above referred to. On the steamer, each immigrant is given a card with his name and a number or letter which tells the particular manifest on which his name appears; and, in marshaling immigrants for examination by the inspectors, care is taken that those appearing on the same manifest shall proceed along the same passageway.

Immigrant Inspection Card Containing Their Name and Location on the Passenger Manifest

Immigrant Inspection Card Containing the Immigrant's Name and Location on the Passenger Manifest

At the end of each passageway is a desk at which sits an immigrant inspector. When the alien reaches the inspector, he produces his card, and the officer finds his name upon the manifest.

The immigrant is then asked substantially the same questions which he has already answered at the time of the preparation of the manifest, and any discrepancies between his answers and the statements on the manifest are noted on the latter in red ink.

Immigrants at an Inspector's Desk at Ellis Island

Immigrant Responding to Questions at an Inspector's Desk at Ellis Island

The immigrant is also required at this time to show the amount of money which he has in his possession, and this also is noted on the manifest. In general, at this primary inspection, which is the only one to which nine-tenths of all immigrants are ever subjected, no steps are taken to ascertain whether the answers given are correct or not; indeed, such verification is in many cases impossible.

Thus, while it would be comparatively easy to ascertain whether an immigrant could read or write, it is utterly impossible to ascertain whether he has been a convict; whether he is a polygamist or anarchist; or, unless his appearance indicates it, whether he has been insane within five years previous.

New Immigrants Landing at Battery Park after taking Ferry from Ellis Island

New Immigrants Landing at Battery Park after taking Ferry from Ellis Island

In the main, if the answers given appear to be truthful, if the immigrant is of good physical appearance, and, considering his ability to work, and his age, sex, and occupation, if he has money to support him until he can find employment, he is immediately passed.

If, however, the inspector doubts his right to land, his card is marked " S. I." and he is detained before a board of special inquiry (Note 92) and conducted to another part of the building.

Those who are not detained pass into another room, where they can have their money changed into United States currency, buy tickets to their destination, and obtain information of all sorts in regard to proceeding on their way.

Quite frequently, the right of persons to land is dependent upon the existence and responsibility of some other person, as a husband or parent, whom the immigrant is to join. From this cause, also, the immigrant may be detained; and then a telegram is sent to the friend or relative requesting him to come and take the new arrival away.

Railroad Ticket Office at Ellis Island

Railroad Ticket Office at Ellis Island

Immigrants also have the assistance of the representatives of the missionary and charitable societies of the various races who are allowed at the Island. These societies provide work for aliens after landing, assist in finding their relatives and friends, and are in many ways useful.

The immigrants permitted to land, who have obtained all necessary information, have exchanged their money, and are otherwise ready, are taken on board the ferry boat which runs every hour, and landed at the Battery.

Those destined to points outside of New York City are looked after until they take their trains, in order to protect them from all kinds of crooks, sharpers, agents of the padrone, and boarding-house keepers.

Provision is made at Ellis Island for the thorough disinfection of clothing and baggage, and for feeding and caring for immigrants during their detention. The present buildings at Ellis Island, erected two or three years ago, are already proving inadequate to meet the needs of the enormous influx of the last few years.

Immigrants Are Served a Meal at Ellis Island

Immigrants Are Served a Meal at Ellis Island

In summer time, spaces on the roof are reserved for detained immigrants, so that they may enjoy the advantages of outdoor air and sunlight. The sleeping quarters are walled and floored with concrete, the bedsteads are of iron, allowing the most thorough disinfection, and the bedding is frequently sterilized.

In addition to the main buildings and power plant, there is also a hospital at Ellis Island, where immigrants afflicted with dangerous contagious diseases can be quarantined, and where those suffering from any sort of disease can be treated.

In certain cases, where a disease is curable, and the immigrant is going to join a husband or parent, he is allowed to remain in the hospital until cured. In other cases, they are treated until deported. Detained immigrants are fed by the government at an expense of the steamship companies of about thirty cents a day for each person. (Note 95)

Immigrants being Held at Ellis Island for Return to Their Country of Origin

Immigrants being Held at Ellis Island for Return to Their Country of Origin

Alien seamen are not subject to inspection when they land with the intention of reshipping on an outward bound vessel as soon as possible; but discharged or deserting seamen are to be treated like other aliens."

Under a ruling of the Attorney-General, made in 1903, Chinese seamen may be landed in the United States to be signed to man American vessels. This not only opens the door to violations of the Chinese Exclusion Acts, but is a violation of the spirit of the contract labor laws. (Note 97)

90 Cp. Dr. Allan McLaughlin, in Popular Science Monthly, vol. 66, pp. 357-361 (Feb. 1905); Report of the Commission appointed by the President to investigate the condition of the Immigrant Station at Ellis Island (1904).

91 Act of March 3, 1903, Section 22.

92 Act of March 3, 1903, section 24.

95 The average cost to the steamship companies of detained immigrants, in proportion to the whole number of immigrants carried by them, varies from 6 cents to 22 cents. The Hamburg-American, Prince and Holland-American Companies pay the largest amounts; the Scandinavian and White Star Companies the smallest. See Report of the Commissioner-General of Immigration, 1904, p. 102.

97 In Report of the Commissioner-General of Immigration, 1903, p. 105.

Hall, Prescott F., A.B., LL.B., American Public Problems: Immigration and Its Effects Upon the United States, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1906

Photographs Courtesy of the National Archives

Immigrant Inspection Card from the Immigration Collection of the Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives

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The GG Archives is the work and passion of two people, Paul Gjenvick, a professional archivist, and Evelyne Gjenvick, a curator. Paul earned a Masters of Archival Studies - a terminal degree from Clayton State University in Georgia, where he studied under renowned archivist Richard Pearce-Moses. Our research into the RMS Laconia and SS Bergensfjord, the ships that brought two members of the Gjønvik family from Norway to the United States in the early 20th century, has helped us design our site for other genealogists. The extent of original materials at the GG Archives can be very beneficial when researching your family's migration from Europe.