Need for Reforms at Ellis Island Called Urgent (1921)

Directors Approve Report Made by The Merchants' Association's Committee on Immigration and Naturalization After a Careful Investigation of Actual Conditions—Facilities for Handling Immigrants Are Found to Be Antiquated and Inadequate

The Merchants' Association, through its Industrial Bureau, under the direction of its Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, of which Mr. Henry D. Walbridge is Chairman, has made a careful investigation of the facilities for receiving immigrants at Ellis Island and the methods in use there.

Report to the Directors

This investigation disclosed particulars in which the service requires improvement. These are shown in a report submitted to the Directors of The Association by the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, and unanimously approved as follows:

"The general report of this Committee on the subject of immigration adopted by your Board on November 19, 1920, contained a recommendation concerning the improvement and enlargement of facilities for handling immigrants at Ellis Island and the necessity for Congressional appropriations for this purpose.

This Association and other organizations have brought this matter to the attention of Congress, but as yet no such appropriations have been made. Although immigration has not reached pre-war proportions, congestion at Ellis Island has been more acute than ever before. Ships have been made to wait in the Harbor from 3 to 5 days before unloading their Ellis Island passengers. This has been a great hardship upon the immigrants and real financial loss to the steamship companies. Moreover, the Station has been so crowded that frequently aliens detained at Ellis Island have had to sleep on the floor.

Of Vital Importance

"Your Committee believes that proper administration of the immigration service at the Port of New York is of such vital importance to the welfare and safety of this City and the country as a whole that it has undertaken through The Association's Industrial Bureau a further and more exhaustive inquiry concerning this matter, on the basis of which it submits for your consideration the following facts and recommendations. Although it is not possible to include in the limited scope of this report all %i the supporting data to the Committee's conclusions, these conclusions, your Committee believes, are amply warranted by the findings of the investigation.

"A considerable part of the congestion at Ellis Island is due to the arrival of large numbers of immigrants who are practically without funds and are held at the Island until their relatives or friends in America can send or bring them money. Under the laws and regulations governing immigration, destitute aliens can be deported.

Photo of Gypsies from Servia at Ellis Island

Photo of Gypsies from Servia at Ellis Island

Through the exercise of this power the Immigration Service can practically compel steamship companies to stop bringing such aliens, as the companies must bear the expense of returning to Europe all such deported aliens. An exercise of this power by Commissioner William Wil Hams in 1909 was immediately effective in stopping the flow of destitute immigrants and is an ample precedent for similar action at the present time.

Although the first effect of such action would be to bring hardship upon the few deported, far larger numbers would benefit from the increased efficiency of the service, and the elimination of trying delays.

Information Service Inadequate

"Another cause for congestion at Ellis Island is the inadequacy of the information service. Delays and confusion constantly result from the difficulty of communication between arriving aliens and friends or relatives who have come to assist them to their points of destination. The staff of the information service as well as the telephone facilities and other equipment of the service, both on Ellis Island and at the Barge Office on Manhattan, are inadequate to permit efficient operation.

"Efficient administration at Ellis Island is further impaired because of the general lack of an adequate staff. Although the total number of employees is larger than before the war, the work required of the staff has greatly increased. The administration of the immigration law of 1917, which is now in force, is much more difficult and requires more time than the administration of the law previously in force. Moreover, the physical character of aliens now arriving and the prevalence of plagues in the countries from which they come, require more careful and adequate medical examination.

Staff Efficiency Low

"The efficiency of the staff itself is also low. Many of those recently employed hold only temporary appointments, in some cases for periods of not more than three months. Nearly all the employees are underpaid. The immigration inspectors who occupy positions of considerable importance receive on the average less than $1,800 per year. With the exception of the doctors, however, they are the highest paid class of employees in the service.

"The proper administration of the immigration service is also hampered by the lack of adequate buildings and equipment. Bathing and toilet facilities are not ample and there are no fumigating facilities on Ellis Island. There is need for a new and larger water main to supply the Island with fresh water. More adequate kitchen facilities are needed for the Ellis Island hospitals. Also the equipment at the quarantine station at Hoffman's Island is not sufficient to protect the country from typhus fever and other plagues now prevalent in Europe. Nearly all the buildings and equipment have unduly deteriorated because of lack of attention to the matter of repair and maintenance.

Need for Reform

"Other evidences of needed improvement in the immigration service are as follows:

"A surprisingly large number of defective aliens are being admitted in to the United States for limited periods on bond. Not infrequently these aliens are lost track of after they are admitted, or their terms extended in a way to constitute almost unqualified admission.

"There is evidence that considerable bribery is indulged in at Ellis Island for the purpose of securing special favors or of dispatching the handling of individual cases.


"Steamship companies are lax in their medical examinations at foreign ports and admit for passage diseased and otherwise undesirable aliens. This Many Deficiencies at Ellis Islandplaces an extra burden upon the Immigration officials here and increases the liability that undesirables will be admitted into this country.

"Many immigrants infested with vermin liable to spread typhus fever are admitted into the United States because j the quarantine officers are authorized to bar only persons who they have reason to believe are infected with typhus fever.

Proper Facilities Lacking

"Aliens traveling as second-class passengers are examined on shipboard. The lack of proper facilities and the varying conditions on different vessels make this examination inadequate, especially in view of the lower physical character of aliens now traveling "second-class."

"There is a wide division of responsibility in the administration of the immigration laws, the work being divided between four separate Departments of the Government—Department of Labor, Department of State, Treasury Department, and Department of Justice. This obviously leads to conflicting policies and inefficiency.

Photo of Exlcuded Gypsies About To Be Deported

Photo of Exlcuded Gypsies About To Be Deported

"To remedy these conditions your Committee recommends that The Merchants' Association take suitable action to make effective the following proposals:

  1. Steamship companies should be compelled to stop bringing destitute aliens to the United States.
  2. The facilities of the information service at Ellis Island should be improved and enlarged.
  3. If immigration continues at the present rate, a larger , staff of employees including more clerks, typists and stenographers and especially more doctors, should be provided.
  4. Adequate bathing and fumigating facilities should be installed at Ellis Island, and the entire plant Improved and enlarged.
  5. Ample funds should be provided for the regular repair and maintenance of the plant.
  6. The Quarantine Station at the Port of New York should be enlarged and better facilities provided for fighting typhus fever and other epidemic diseases.
  7. The quarantine regulations should be amended to provide that no vermin infested passengers be admitted to this country.
  8. Every European port of embarkation should be equipped with adequate detention, delousing and disinfecting plants such as are now operated at Rotterdam, Hamburg and a few other foreign ports.
  9. Aliens traveling as second-class passengers should be examined at Ellis Island, rather than on shipboard.
  10. IV thorough study of salaries of employees at Ellis Island should be undertaken with a view to making such readjustments as are necessary.
  11. Not only should greater care be exercised in the admission of immigrants under bond, but ample provision should be made to enable Government officials to keep in close touch with all aliens so admitted during their residence in this country.
  12. In so far as possible, the administration of immigration matters should be centralized in a National Immigration Commission, organized along the same general lines as the Federal Reserve Board and the Interstate Commerce Commission."

Source: Greater New York: Bulletin of the Merchants’ Association of New York, Volume 10, No. 20, New York, May 16, 1921 P.6-7

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