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July, 1986, Vol. 109, No. 7
Ellis Island a welcome site?
Only after years of reform
Between 1903 and 1920, 10 million people emigrated to the United States by passing through the portals of the receiving station on Ellis Island. During that period, the U.S. Department of Labor and its predecessor agency, the Department of Commerce and Labor, administered the immigration laws of the country, including those providing for the operation of Ellis Island.
The island lies just a short distance from the New Jersey shoreline in New York Harbor. The Federal Government, over many years, expanded the land area from 7.5 acres to a landfilled 27.5 acres for new buildings, park areas, and other facilities. The main hall, a spacious brick building with white limestone trim, in French Renaissance style, is the most striking landmark on the island and the site where immigrants first entered for processing. Kitchen facilities, dormitories, a hospital, and a power plant also occupied island space. Docks to receive passenger and cargo vessels expanded in proportion to the island's growth.1
Men, women, and children segregated by sex, stood in lines on Ellis Island awaiting a barrage of questions on their potential destinations, intentions for going there, and job prospects upon arrival. Prearranged labor contracting was illegal and would mean deportation. Inspectors often had limited comprehension of certain languages, especially Slavic ones, and misinterpretations were common. The newcomers faced assembly-line medical exams and if doctors or nurses put certain chalk letters on an immigrant's outergarment it meant detention and possible deportation. (The letter T signified suspected trachoma, H meant a possible heart condition, and LCD translated as loathsome contagious disease. Nonmedical examiners could put LPC (likely to become a public charge) on a person's coat, which also could result in deportation.) One of the island's Public Health Service physicians commented, "these methods, crude as they seem, had to be used because of the great numbers [of immigrants] and the language difficulties.2
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1 U.S. Department of Labor, Report of the Ellis Island Committee to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (Washington, 1934), p. 1-10; and the General Committee of Immigrant Aid, Report on Ellis Island, undated pamphlet in files of Labor Department Historical Office.
2 U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, Annual Report of the Commissioner of Immigration, 1905 (Washington, 1906), pp. 61-64. For a detailed account of administrative and legal procedures for immigration and Ellis Island see: Harlan Unrau, Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Historical Resource Study (Washington, 1984), 3 volumes.
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