The Inconvenient — But Highly Relevant — Truth About Ellis Island

Anyone who has ever tried to discuss the need for immigration control with a friend or colleague has – at least once – had all of their fact-based arguments quickly dismissed by someone who spits out the most well known phrases from the poem attached to the base of the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor, [Y]our huddled masses…”

Reciting a few lines from a historic poem isn’t a counter argument. It also shows in very clear and unambiguous terms that the person reciting these lines to you has absolutely no idea what actually happened at Ellis Island.  As a recent episode of PBS’s American Experience reveals, Ellis Island was certainly not a welcome center for mass immigration but rather a staging area for vetting who would enter America and who would be turned around and sent back to Europe.  

Here are a few fast facts to keep in mind about Ellis Island during the alleged “Golden Age” of immigration in the early 1900s:

  1. New arrivals were quickly processed by a team of doctors who only had a few seconds to determine the health status of each individual and whether or not they suffered from one of 60 known illnesses.  These included tuberculosis and cholera. 
  2. More than 120,000 immigrants were sent back home for various reasons.
  3. More than 3,500 immigrants died at Ellis Island awaiting approval to enter the U.S., usually because they were already suffering from a chronic medical condition or disease for which they were unable to receive medical attention at home.
  4. At least 20 percent of arrivals at Ellis Island were temporarily detained, often due to concerns that they might become a public charge – someone who would become dependent on government handouts in order to survive.  

Of course, for those who attempt to racialize all discussions of immigration enforcement, what actually happened at Ellis Island is an inconvenient truth. Most of the migrants who processed through “America’s Golden Doorway,” were Caucasians, of European ancestry. And European immigrants were screened, and some sent home, for many of the same reasons we deport people today. 

Modern immigration has changed in two ways: 1) Most migrants are coming from regions other than Europe; and 2) the entire process has become easier on the migrants. But, if there is one lesson that should be drawn from the Ellis Island experience, it is that the U.S. must properly screen anyone who is seeking a new life in the U.S. – to ensure that their admission is in the national interest of the people of the United States. That is an idea that is as old at the nation itself and it ensures that immigration works both for Americans and those who aspire to be Americans.

Those who use Emma Lazarus’s poem thinking that they are justifying the status quo of mass immigration, or use the poem as a way to criticize the notion of detaining or properly screening new immigrants, are completely misrepresenting the history of U.S. immigration policy and essentially hijacking the facts.

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