Inside Ellis Island: Exploring the Immigration Process of the Past

Do you ever wonder what your ancestors experienced while making their journey through Ellis Island to America? In this post, find out the requirements for immigration as well as the process.

At first glance, most of us know that immigration rules and processes governing would-be migrants to the US have changed considerably over time. While migration was always costly and required significant personal sacrifice, historically the process was much less restrictive than it is today.

Discovering what life was like for immigrants who entered America during the late 19th and early 20th century through Ellis Island can provide us with insight into their experience, especially if our ancestors arrived through New York Harbor.

Did All Immigrants Visit Ellis Island? Not every immigrant who entered America via New York Harbor needed to go through immigration inspection on Ellis Island; those traveling in first and second class ships were taken directly to piers for disembarkation and customs inspection.

Before first and second class passengers were allowed to disembark, however, the ship must wait in New York harbor to be boarded by officials responsible for quarantine inspection, a requirement since 1846 for ships entering New York harbor. These officials would check for potential contagious disease outbreaks aboard ship before permitting it to dock.

Note that first and second class passengers were required to visit Ellis Island if found sick by quarantine inspection officers, yet were treated more favorably at Ellis Island or any required health quarantines.

Once the quarantine inspection and drop-off of wealthier passengers were complete, the ship would continue its journey to Ellis Island to deliver steerage passengers directly to immigration officials for interview and medical inspection.

On occasion, particularly for larger vessels, immigration officers would board immediately after quarantine inspectors gave it the all-clear in order to begin interviewing and inspecting immigrants immediately.

Did Immigrants Require Passports or Visas at Ellis Island?
Since there was no federal law requiring passports or visas from immigrants prior to 1924’s Immigration Act, most immigrants who passed through Ellis Island (or any others who were processed before then) did not need any kind of identity document in order to pass immigration interviews or inspections at Ellis Island.

Es can be disheartening to discover that our ancestors did not need official documents like passports when immigrating to the United States, such as mine. I wish there was some chance I could locate some old passports from my ancestors but unfortunately most likely never received one in their lifetimes.

An old passport would make for an invaluable genealogy record, especially as its usage wasn’t universal until after World War I. Furthermore, many governments issued them only to certain citizens of their own nation – many of our ancestors never receiving one from their home nation’s government!

How long did the Ellis Island immigration process take? Most immigrants would spend only three to five hours at Ellis Island. This processing time doesn’t include waiting in the harbor for health and quarantine inspectors or bringing first and second class passengers who weren’t required to go through Ellis Island.

Since Ellis Island had too shallow of waters for ships to dock directly, once all first and second class passengers were unloaded they were checked by customs officers before being loaded onto smaller vessels that traveled across the harbor, typically from Manhattan, towards Ellis Island.

What were the steps of Ellis Island immigration process?
Typically, the initial part of Ellis Island immigration involved medical inspection by military doctors who often wore uniforms themselves.

Doctors inspected immigrants for illnesses, deformities and mental issues that would make them burdensome to society. Immigrants who failed the initial medical inspection (later dubbed a “six second” inspection) were subjected to an additional one which took longer.

The second part of inspection consisted of an interview. Immigrants would form long lines following medical inspection for this stage.

Immigration officials conducting interviews would, usually with the assistance of interpreters, analyze passenger manifests provided by shipping companies. Immigrants would then be asked questions about themselves; if their answers matched up with those listed on their manifest, their immigration process usually concluded quickly and conclusively.

Immigrants were also asked a variety of general and religious-based questions, such as religion and political beliefs. If any immigrant gave unsatisfactory responses they were often referred to a more in-depth secondary questioning session.

Once an immigrant had successfully passed both medical inspection and interview processes on Ellis Island, they could purchase train tickets and take a ferry ride to reach Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal in New Jersey for further travels into mainland United States territory. Thus for most who passed through Ellis Island their initial steps onto United States soil were actually made in New Jersey instead of New York.

Once arriving at a train terminal, immigrants would board their train bound for their final destination and begin their new life in their new country.

This photograph depicts where trains arrived and departed at the New Jersey rail terminal, so you can imagine their excitement upon their arrival here.

How Selective Were Ellis Island Immigration Officers
Once most immigrants reached Ellis Island, the hard part of their journey had concluded. Immigration officials weren’t particularly selective back then compared with today’s standards, meaning it was easier for immigrants to legally enter America permanently than today.

As long as a male immigrant appeared healthy and had the potential for finding gainful employment upon entering the US, they were likely to be accepted.

Immigration officials were kept extremely busy with interviewing, inspecting, and transporting large volumes of people in and out of Ellis Island.

Female immigrants traveling alone or with young children had more difficulty clearing Ellis Island immigration interviews and inspections, particularly due to increased scrutiny. Women traveling without male relatives were often not permitted to leave without one as an escort.

Even though immigration was relatively open-ended, crossing from Europe to North America wasn’t always straightforward. Up to 10% of those aboard ships bound for America died while sailing there; although exact death toll numbers weren’t kept track of.

Assuming Ellis Island processed 12 million immigrants over its operation period and an estimate of 10% is accurate, we can extrapolate this data and estimate that up to 1.3 million immigrants died while trying to enter America during that timeframe.

This figure does not account for an estimated total of 3,500 immigrants who died while being detained, quarantined or waiting to complete their immigration processes on Ellis Island.

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