Inspection of Immigrants at Ellis Island circa 1901

Immigrant Being Questioned Through An Interpreter at Ellis Island.

Immigrant Being Questioned Through An Interpreter at Ellis Island. The Interpreter (above middle) and a Recorder (far left) Interview Newcomers at Ellis Island. NYPL 79880. GGA Image ID # 19f4b9efe0

Procedure Before Reaching Ellis Island

The methods of inspection are described at length by various witnesses connected with the inspection service at New York. When a vessel approaches the harbor, it is boarded by 1 or 2 inspectors, who examine the cabin passengers. These men are confronted with 100 or 150 passengers at a time, and they have an hour and a half for an examination covering the period of time from touching at quarantine and landing at the dock.

Cabin passengers are asked questions calculated to ascertain whether they are likely to become a public charge or whether they are under contract to perform labor. If one is suspected, he is brought to Ellis Island for further investigation. No one is allowed to mingle with the steerage passengers until they have passed through the inspection office at the island.

General Procedures at Ellis Island

After landing at Ellis Island immigrants pass before the medical officers of the Marine-Hospital Service. The rigidity of the medical inspection depends on the general appearance and character of the immigrants. In many shiploads only a casual inspection is necessary. The greatest difficulty is found in the fact that Italians and Syrians are especially subject to trachoma and favus.

The medical examination of emigrants before embarkation is insufficient. The most effective examination of this kind is at Liverpool, but even there a physician views them at the rate of 2,000 an hour, even without uncovering their heads. The surgeons in Europe do not recognize two of the diseases which are grounds for exclusion, viz, trachoma and favus.

After medical inspection, the immigrants file in lines of 30 each, according to the manifests furnished by the steamship company, before the immigration inspectors. These inspectors are registry clerks, who speak the several languages of the immigrants. Each registry clerk has a steamship manifest before him and examines each applicant to ascertain if there is any discrepancy.

Sometimes as many as 4,000 persons pass through the office in a day, but the verification is correct, at least so far as the count of the immigrants goes.8 Two or three witnesses complain that the immigration officers at present are scarcely qualified for the satisfactory performance of their duties. An inspector ought to be able to judge each individual according to his merits upon the basis of many considerations.

Poorly Paid Inspectors

The inspectors are poorly paid, and the interpreters are often incompetent to secure correct information.' It is contended by the commissioner of immigration at the port of New York that the application of the civil-service examination to the position of immigration inspector is disadvantageous to the service.

The system may be satisfactory for clerical positions, but no academic examination based on book learning or linguistic knowledge can be a guaranty that the person will have the necessary common sense and honesty to decide whether an immigrant is desirable or not. The bureau at New York has had difficulty with men who have been chosen under the civil-service rules. The law, moreover, protects men who have never taken an examination.

The immigration inspectors are required to detain for special inquiry all who are not plainly and unquestionably entitled to admission. Under this rule, they detain about 13 to 15 percent of the immigrants. These amounted in 1898-99 to about 25,000 persons examined before boards of special inquiry. The proportion of those who require such examination varies greatly in the case of different vessels.

Responsibility of the Steamships

Since the steamship companies are required to provide for immigrants during their detention, the amounts paid by the different companies is a fair index to the character of the immigrants. These amounts vary from 2 cents per capita for the passengers on board to 50 cents per capita. On some vessels, only 3 or 4 may be detained, while a ship bringing immigrants from Italy may have three-fourths to three-fifths of the passengers detained.'

Immigrant Appears Before the Board of Special Inquiry at Ellis Island circa 1907.

Immigrant Appears Before the Board of Special Inquiry at Ellis Island circa 1907. NYPL 1693106. GGA Image ID # 19f4d976bc

The board of special inquiry consists of 4 inspectors especially designated. An affirmative vote of 3 of the members is required for admission. Any member dissenting has a right to appeal to the Secretary of the Treasury, and the immigrant has the same right. The decisions of the board, however, are seldom overruled.' If the immigrant is excluded, the steamship company bears the expense of deportation.

Contract Laborers

Contract laborers often come as cabin passengers, and it is here that the greatest difficulty in their detection occurs. If the alleged contract laborer is detained by the inspector, he is then brought before the board of special inquiry for examination, the same as other immigrants who are detained. The authority of the immigration inspectors, on approval by the Secretary of the Treasury, in ordering the deportation of an immigrant whom they deem ineligible is final. It is so recognized by the courts, who will refuse to review their action.

Besides the deportation of the contract laborer, the law provides for the punishment of an importer who contracts for his employment in this country. There have been but few cases of conviction, although there have been in 6 years, some 4,000 contract laborers deported.

This is because the law requires that the contract be proven and does not provide punishment for the mere inducement, request, or solicitation, or for the offer of employment. The contract must also be made in a foreign country in order to convict the importer.

At the present time, very few such contracts are made. The more common practice is for the foreman to inquire of his foreign workmen whether they have any friends or relatives whom they would like to bring to the United States. In this way, large numbers of immigrants reach this country with the object of replacing Americans at lower wages.

It is asserted that the wholesale importation of contract labor has practically been stopped, although the person making the contract is not convicted.

The Criminal Element

Criminals.—The immigration law provides only for the exclusion of persons convicted of a crime, but not for those charged with a crime or those deemed to be immoral. Although it provides for the exclusion of polygamists, it is impossible to prove such a charge, and consequently, a constant stream of Mormon converts, of whom 90 to 95 percent are women, are continually coming to this country.

Immigration through Canada

The law does not provide for restriction of immigration from Canada, and the inspection of those who come from Europe through Canada is wholly inadequate. The United States Commissioner made an agreement with the Canadian steamship companies allowing them to board the ships at Canadian ports and to pay the United States head tax for those destined to this country. The railroads through Canada agree to transport none who are not granted a certificate of inspection by these inspectors entitling them to enter at the frontier.

Notwithstanding these agreements, a large number of immigrants from Europe evade the law by giving some place in Canada as their destination, which relieves them of inspection by the United States officers, and then after remaining there only a short time they cross over to the American side. This is affirmed to be the greatest loophole in the restriction of legislation, and as a remedy, it is proposed that inspectors should be placed along the Canadian border.

Steamship Companies

Before 1893 steamship agents in Europe were very little restricted as to persons to whom they sold tickets. The result was an indiscriminate emigration to the United States. The act of 1893, compelling the steamship companies to deport those of their passengers who might be rejected by the inspectors, has had the effect of making the European agents of the companies the most effective inspectors under the law.

Immigrants at Le Havre, France

Indeed, the steamship representatives maintain that this class of inspection is much superior to that of consular officers or direct representatives of the United States Government.

The reasons given are that the companies hold their agents responsible for immigrants to whom tickets have been sold in case these immigrants are deported. These agents are fully informed of all the details of American legislation, and are furnished with minute instructions regarding the classes of immigrants who are ineligible.

"G. Existing Legislation Restricting Immigration." In Industrial Commision on Immigration, Including Testimony, With Review and Digest, and Special Reports, and on Education, Including Testimony, with Review and Digest. Volume XV of the COmmission's Reports, Washington: Government Print Ofice, 1901, Page 16-18.

Return to Top of Page