America's International Clearinghouse - 1921

Ellis Island's Immigration Task and the N. C. W. C.'s Part in It

By T. F. Mulholland, Port Director, New York, N. C. W. C. Immigration Bureau

Immigrants Held Under Detention at Ellis Island.

Immigrants Held Under Detention at Ellis Island. © Underwood & Underwood. The NCWC Bulletin, September 1921. GGA Image ID # 14d0cd730b

As approximately 70 percent of the Nation's immigration is handled on Ellis Island, it is clear that the above title may fittingly be applied to this entrance to the New World.

Even with what has been described as a significant slump in immigration, 648,651 aliens arrived at the port of New York in the twelve months ending June 30, 1921, an average of 12,474 per week during the entire period.

No reading about the number of arrivals at Ellis Island will give a fair idea of what this volume of immigration means, nor of what sort the immigrants are.

For that, one must actually see the human stream pouring upon the wharf of the Island out of the barges that have brought the immigrants from the steamships which have been their floating homes in their long passage across the Atlantic.

The gigantic task confronting the Immigration Officials is sufficiently arduous in itself but becomes almost impossible when complicated by the difficulties caused by the unsuppressed anxiety of those whose only aim is to secure the immediate admission of their alien relatives into the country, whatever the impediments and however clearly expressed the debarring statutes.

To assist immigrants indirectly through their relatives and friends, it is probably advisable to give a general idea of the method of admission of aliens as carried out on Ellis Island.

Method of Receiving Aliens

All immigrants 3,162 brought to Ellis Island from steamship piers on barges or small steamboats, and, upon arrival, undergo a medical examination by officers of the United States Public Health Service.

This examination is held on the ground floor and is not open to public inspection. It relates to the detection of loathsome and dangerous contagious diseases and to any diseases or physical defects that may, in any way, affect the immigrant's ability to earn a living.

Public Health Officers are also required to detect insanity, idiocy, imbecility (stupidity), and feeblemindedness. All physical and mental defects discovered by them are reported to Immigration Officials for appropriate action under the law.

Immigrants suffering from serious diseases, as well as those requiring general medical care, are sent directly to the hospital. All others, upon completion of the medical examination, present themselves on the main floor for inspection.

The Immigrant Inspectors sit at the end of long lines, assisted when necessary by interpreters. They have before them the ship's manifest sheets containing information concerning the immigrant, including name, age, occupation, nationality, last place of residence, final destination, and other matters required by law to be registered by the steamship companies.

These inspectors also apply the literacy test required of all immigrants, such tests being made in the language requested by the individual. It is so arranged that immigrants appear before that particular inspector who has the manifest sheet on which they are listed and who also has before him any medical certificate that may have been issued.

With the' preceding information and the opportunity to question the immigrants thoroughly, it is the inspector's duty (often a difficult one) to determine who amongst the immigrants present doubtful cases under the law and to hold such cases for inspection by a board of special inquiry.

Most of the other immigrants are allowed to land at once, except that women and children going to New York or vicinity are temporarily detained in the Information Division until called for by relatives or friends.

When immigrants are suffering from any of the mental defects already named or from any loathsome or dangerous contagious disease, exclusion follows the issuance of a medical certificate as a matter of course.

In other cases, the question whether or not an immigrant shall be excluded may be a very difficult one, such as determining whether or not he is a person likely to become a public charge, or whether certain physical defects (not of a loathsome or contagious nature) will affect his ability to earn a living.

These points occupy the attention of the various boards of Special Inquiry, appointed daily by the Commissioner. Several of these are in session throughout each day. The boards are composed of three inspectors and have the power to admit or exclude.

An appeal lies, in most cases, from these excluding decisions through the Commissioner to the Secretary of Labor. The sessions of the Special Inquiry Board are by statute closed to the general public.

Worthy Immigrants Admitted

It may be worth mentioning that despite harrowing stories periodically finding their way into the public press, immigrants are not turned back from our shores for want of a dollar to make up the amount required for their prospective journey.

If such situations should occur in the case of a worthy immigrant, there are individuals and agencies on Ellis Island who would not hesitate to supply the deficiency, and it is but universal justice to a much-maligned body of men, in these days of sensational newspaper articles, to state that in very many financial transactions between Government authorities and immigrants, the path of the welcome dollar has been from and not into the pocket of the Immigration Officer.

As a matter of fact, the law is silent on the question of the amount of money an immigrant should have in his possession. Still, the authorities usually require him to have enough to provide for his reasonable wants until such time as he becomes located.

Of the immigrants who are allowed to land, many proceed to the interior by rail. These go down the stairway to what is known as the "Railroad Rooms," whence they proceed to the various railway terminals on the Jersey shore.

In the first railroad room, the immigrant cashes his landing check and may exchange his foreign money at rates daily posted in full view of all, obtaining a receipt for the money given (exchanged).

He then purchases his railroad ticket and proceeds to the second railroad room where he is "tagged" with a number showing the railroad over which he is to travel.

While awaiting transportation by the ferry, he may obtain, at reasonable rates, light refreshments, and a luncheon box, the contents and price of which are a source of constant wonder to visitors from New York and elsewhere.

Detention of Immigrants

Those immigrants who have appeared before the Boards of Special Inquiry and have been excluded are transferred to the Detention Quarters, where they await deportation, or if they have appealed against the decision of the Board, the result of such appeal.

It is amongst those so detained that opportunities for sympathetic and appreciated social service present themselves, for, in many cases, days and often weeks pass before the order for admission arrives or the bonds guaranteeing the immigrant against becoming a public charge reach the Immigration officials.

Then, also, on many occasions, the appeal is fruitless, and the task of speaking cheering words of comfort, which will remove the pangs of disappointment, is by no means easy, though very necessary and, in the long run, effective.

All phases of social welfare work receive their share of attention from the N. C. W. C. Bureau of Immigration workers on Ellis Island. Special attention is given to detained immigrants whose gratitude is shown in their words of acknowledgment of the benefits received from the daily visits of the workers.

Advice to Relatives of Immigrants

Interior View of the Port Office, N. C. W. C. Bureau of Immigration.

Interior View of the Port Office, N. C. W. C. Bureau of Immigration, 61 Whitehall Street, New York City. The N. C. W. C. Bulletin, September 1921. GGA Image ID # 14d10317ce

The National Catholic Welfare Council's Bureau of Immigration has been established to render moral and material assistance to immigrants. It is often a needless expense for relatives to come from a distance and wait for days for the landing of those in whom they are interested.

It is sufficient to send word in advance to the Bureau of Immigration at the National Headquarters of the N. C. W. C. in Washington, D. C., giving all necessary information, name of immigrant, age, sex, nationality, name of steamship, class of travel, name, and address of person to whom destined, and such other details as might facilitate landing.

This information will be forwarded to the branch offices at the respective ports. The immigrant will then be taken care of, and word sent to his destination informing his friends there of his departure from the port, so that he may be met at the end of his journey.

In cases where the presence of relatives at Ellis Island is necessary, these will be notified. Pending their arrival, the immigrants will be carefully looked after, and everything is done to ensure their comfort.

Where an immigrant is excluded, and an appeal is necessary, a word of warning will not come amiss. Runners, pretending to have special facilities for securing immediate admission for immigrants, prey upon ignorant and unsuspecting relatives, demanding large sums of money in return for their services.

No bargains should be made with these despicable individuals. All information concerning cases detained at Ellis Island should be sent to the Port Director at New York, No. 61 Whitehall Street, and representatives of the N. C. W. C. will make all inquiries, lodging an appeal for the immigrant, if worthy, and advising if there will be any material advantage in obtaining the services of a reputable lawyer whose fees are not gauged by an estimate of the possible life savings of the relatives.

Many cases of the graft may be traced to the guilelessness of people seeking the admission of relatives into the country, and who part with their hard-earned money to glib casual acquaintances, most of whose work is completed with the financial fleecing of their victims.

The Government authorities are anxious to check the activities of these adventurers. Readers can cooperate by sounding a note of warning against the methods adopted in exploiting the immigrant or his friends, either at the ports of entry or elsewhere in the United States.

National Organization and Aims of the N. C. W. C. Bureau of Immigration.

National Organization and Aims of the N. C. W. C. Bureau of Immigration. The N. C. W. C. Bulleting, September 1921. GGA Image ID # 14d1215257

T. F. Mulholland, "America's International Clearing-House: Ellis Island's Immigration Task and the N. C. W. C.'s Part in It," in The National Catholic Welfare Council Bulletin, Washington, DC: The National Catholic Welfare Council, Vol. III, No. 4, September 1921, pp. 6-8.

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