Requirements for Immigrants at Ellis Island

By Lesley Barker

  • Overview

    Ellis Island is in New York Harbor. It's where, between 1892 and 1954, about 12 million immigrants entered the United States. While originally only 3.3 acres in size, it was increased to an area of 27.5 acres. Some historians think that the land used to extend the island came from a combination of ship ballast and dirt obtained by digging the subway tunnels. As the first federal immigration station, the immigrants who entered the country at Ellis Island had to meet a set of requirements or else they faced deportation.
  • Identification

    Even before the 1920s, when the United States determined which immigrants could legally enter and live in this country by implementing a quota system, there was a preferential treatment given to more affluent immigrants. While passengers whose ticket was for "steerage" or third-class travel had to face a series of entrance requirements that lasted between two and five hours, no such admission tests were given to first- or second-class passengers. Unless these passengers showed evidence of a contagious disease, they were given quick entry to New York City.
  • Significance

    Two agencies conducted the inspections and set the requirements for immigrants at Ellis Island. The United States Public Health Service conducted a medical inspection. Then, the Bureau of Immigration made a legal inspection. Together, the two inspections could take up to five hours. Then the immigrant would either be admitted to New York City, interned as an "alien radical" or deported.


  • Function

    Immigrants had to pass the medical inspection before being admitted to the country. It started with a trip up three flights of stairs. This would reveal whether the immigrant suffered from any physical disability, lameness, shortness of breath or obvious heart condition. It was followed by what became known as the "six-second physical." Not only did the doctor-inspections want to prevent people who had infectious diseases from entering the country, they also looked for evidence of chronic illness, mental illness and trachoma.
  • Considerations

    Immigrants at Ellis Island also had to pass a legal inspection, which was done by means of a series of 29 questions. Because many of the immigrants did not speak English, the questions were translated into 39 languages. The immigrants were required to answer questions about their name, gender, marital status, occupation, literacy, race and health. They were asked if they had ever been to prison, were polygamists or had ever participated in anarchist activity.
  • effects

    Immigrants who entered the United States at Ellis Island were not permitted to remain in the country if they had a contagious disease such as smallpox, yellow fever or the measles. If they were deemed likely to end up needing to receive welfare or otherwise seemed unable to provide for themselves, they would be refused admission. Finally, if they were assessed as likely to become an illegal contract laborer, they would be refused entry. People who seemed to be "alien radicals" were interned. The records of many of the immigrants who entered the country at Ellis Island have become part of its archive. The island is a significant tourist destination, and its website contains links to where the descendants of these immigrants can go when doing genealogical research about their family (see Resources below).
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