How Should We Remember Ellis Island?

How Should We Remember Ellis Island?

Ellis Island: A People’s History looks at the everyday injustices that have haunted the country’s stance on immigration for centuries.


At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the easiest ways to get marked for deportation at Ellis Island was flunking an eye exam. From 1903 to 1930, trachoma—an eye disease caused by Chlamydia trachomatis bacteria, which eventually leads to blindness—was classified by the United States Health Service as among the most serious of diseases “brought in” by immigrants. As Grover A. Kemp, a doctor who worked on Ellis Island from 1912 to 1916, recalled, everyone who stepped foot on the island had to undergo an inspection for it:

To turn the eyelid I used the good old buttoner—the button shoes were common in those days, and there was a little loop [used] to button shoes[;] [we] used [it] to turn the eyelid—it was the most efficient way of turning the eyes ever devised.

No one involved in the inspections ever entertained the possibility that exposure to this nonmedical tool increased trachoma cases—which, if true, inadvertently led to a decrease in immigrants entering the country. Caught in between that question—did immigrants bring trachoma, or did medical ignorance bring trachoma to immigrants?—one is led to conclude that it might’ve been a bit of both. However, the possibility of arriving immigrants’ being harmed through this heedlessness shows how appallingly primitive physical examinations on Ellis Island were while underlining the United States’ tenuous relationship with newly arrived persons.

Much of Malgorzata Szejnert’s Ellis Island: A People’s History—a new history of the island that covers the years 1774 (when Samuel Ellis, a merchant in colonial New York and the island’s namesake, bought it) to 2003 (when current members of the Leni Lenape tribe, who were pressured into “selling” the island to the Dutch West India Company in 1630, were allowed to exhume the remains of their ancestors)works this way. She provides a plethora of raw data, including nationality quotas, how many people arrived on ships, the date when commissioners left their post—but her primary mode of storytelling is encouraging her audience to read between the lines, and her book does much in the service of contextualizing immigration to the US as fraught with discriminatory snap judgments on the merits of arriving individuals’ human value, rather than a triumphant articulation of American values, with a welcome mat in New York harbor.

Szejnert is arguably the most eminent living journalist in Poland—the cofounder of Gazeta Wyborcza, a prominent daily newspaper and one of the first post-communist publications in the country, which she ran for 15 years. She proceeded to write several books on subjects such as labor strikes and workers’ quarters in her own country, as well as a collection of articles about Polish Americans. Ellis Island is her first book in English. It appears in a serviceable translation by  Sean Gasper Bye.

In the book’s afterword, Szejnert says she became interested in Ellis Island after a visit to the National Museum of Immigration, located on the island. “Who were the people of the island—the keepers of the gate?” she asks. “What was their interaction like with those pressing in on those gates? How did they reconcile the virtues they learned in their homes and democratic institutions with the cruelty their service often demanded.” She continues: “I found it just as easy to obtain testimony of the United States’ generosity as of its selfishness.” It’s this judgment that Szejnert is interested in: “those who accepted [immigrants] (or rejected them.)” However, to affix the tactical phrase “a people’s history” to her historical text implies a challenge to America’s conventional immigration narrative. In this sense, the book recalls Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which retells the story of America from 1492 through the George W. Bush years from the perspective of the persecuted and the marginal. While it damns the actions of the ruling class, Zinn’s book never intended to discredit “America” per se. Rather, the point of his history was to situate the agitation for rights in the face of institutional oppression as integral to the country’s identity—even as its history has shown that progress was always stymied by the select few who exercised power over the disenfranchised and the dispossessed. Conversely, Szejnert’s People’s History is quieter and less didactic, despite sharing a similar interest in polyphony and tracing a familiar historical arc with a darker pencil.

Originally an execution site for pirates, what was then known as Little Oyster Island was purchased by Samuel Ellis in 1774. The island was eventually used for military exercises and held artillery batteries, British prisoners of war, and more pirates due for execution; in its second stint as a capital punishment site, bodies were donated to Manhattan’s College of Surgeons for use as cadavers. Although the property was willed to Ellis’s children, inheritance battles and considerations for the national interest led to its being sold to the federal government in 1808.

From 1855 to 1890, people immigrating to the United States were received at Castle Garden, a fort located in Battery Park. Ironically, it was benevolence, rather than xenophobia, that led to the collective decision to turn over the process from New York municipal control to the federal government. Bedloe’s Island, which houses the Statue of Liberty, was the first choice, but the adjacent Ellis Island was ultimately chosen, as the result of an uproar from both the statue’s creator, Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, and Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper the New York World, which characterized the idea of receiving aspiring US citizens on the same site as the statue as “blasphemous,” and turning Lady Liberty “into the Tower of Babel,” respectively. Munitions were removed from Ellis, canals were dredged to better accommodate ferry traffic, and President Benjamin Harrison installed the island’s inaugural commissioner, John Baptiste Weber, at the Port of New York.

Szejnert chronicles Harrison’s decision to send Weber to Russia in the 1890s while the island’s station was being completed to discern why it was that large numbers of Jewish people in Eastern Europe wanted to immigrate to the United States. The episode illustrates what has remained endemic about the US vision of immigration as a kind of condescending benevolence: “It is inhumane of us to push these people back into the pit from which they have crawled,” Weber writes in his report to Harrison. “When we do this we should extinguish the torch [in] the outstretched hand of the Goddess of Liberty in New York’s beautiful bay.” Paradoxically, this new wave of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe was considered less desirable than the previous wave, which consisted primarily of English, Irish, and German people.

After Weber returned from his trip in 1892, when a steamer christened the Nevada arrived at Ellis Island, Weber met the ship at the harbor. Its passengers were the first immigrants to arrive there—a majority of whom were Russian Jews. However, concerned about the optics of who constituted a good immigrant, officials hand-selected Annie Moore of Cork, Ireland, as “the first guest at Ellis Island,” and awarded a $10 Liberty coin.

Much of the tension in Szejnert’s book resides in the contradiction between America’s immigration lore and the casual biases and political considerations required to construct it. There is a small cast of recurring characters (Fiorello La Guardia, a second-generation immigrant who served as the 99th mayor of New York City and who began his career working as an interpreter on Ellis Island between 1907 and 1910, features prominently as a symbol of upward mobility and assimilation), but most of Szejnert’s subjects depart as quietly as they arrive. The book is neatly organized into parts with segmented sections, most of which take on a nautical theme channeling the ebbs and flows of human passage (“Rising Tide,” “Flood,” “Still Waters”), but for the most part it is in the narrative structure that Szejnert most departs from Zinn. Her case studies rely on a steady accumulation of evidence with little or no commentary as to their impact or implications for the people involved. Considered in light of the sweltering street-level politics of contemporary America, this may strike some as a cop-out on first read. But going through the motivations of individuals’ moral failures is not the same as catering to both sides, and Szejnert’s stories, with their documentation of bureaucratic labyrinths and cruelties both overt and absent-minded, ultimately speak to everyday injustices left unsaid unless someone like Szejnert gives voice to them.

A horrifying parallel between early 20th and early 21st century immigration policy is the emphasis on merit, and whether prospective immigrants would be able to provide for themselves without government assistance. It takes the community of Olean, N.Y., for example, to prevent 9-year-old Paula Pitum from being deported in 1914. Two years earlier, her father, Chaim, emigrated from Russia and sent for his wife and two children. When his daughter, Paula, arrives, she is deemed “retarded” in her Ellis Island examination, and therefore risks being declared a public charge. Stunningly, her entire family save for Chaim is ordered deported; appeals to the secretary of labor manage to reverse the decision for everyone but Paula. Testimonies from her elementary school teacher that Paula’s “house is kept clean and cozy, and the children are well-dressed and look happy” grant her a one-year reprieve, which is inevitably extended because of World War I. But in 1919 the immigration authorities target her again. “She has no one to go to in Russia,” her father testifies. “She might better be thrown into the ocean.” Chaim’s own citizenship (and his purchases of Liberty Bonds and War Savings Stamps) convince a judge to let Paula stay—at least until 1921, when she is forced to undergo a mental competency examination yet again. Ultimately, it will take the Supreme Court’s ordering a judicial review of her case, a $3,000 fee, and reports on Paula’s progress at six-month intervals for her to remain in a country she has called her home for 11 years.

Paula’s story overlaps with the United States’ imposing its first immigration quotas, in 1921. Each nationality was assigned a cap on entries, amounting to 3 percent of the total members of that nationality living in the country as of 1910. “As we know, the number of ‘worse’ immigrants…has been growing year after year,” Szejnert notes, “so setting a point of reference 11 years in the past demonstrates clearly whom the law’s authors support and whom they do not.” That is to say, they are prioritizing immigrants from Germany, Scandinavia, and the UK. Sounds an awful lot like not wanting to allow in people from “shithole countries.”

One of the more prescient arguments Szejnert makes draws a link between the eugenic aspect of America’s approach to immigration historically and white nationalist politics more broadly. In 1924, Congress passed a second quota act, limiting nationalities to 2 percent of the US population, based on 1890 figures. The change effectively downgraded the island from a center that processes immigrants to a detention center to house the suspicious—or those who were being deported. As a congressman, La Guardia voted against the bill as as “vicious, cruel discrimination against Italians and Jews mainly,” but it passed anyway. A few weeks afterward, the Klu Klux Klan staged a march through New Jersey “display[ing] threatening paraphernalia—white robes, hoods, burning torches and crosses…not so much against African-Americans as against Jews, Slavs, Italians, Asians, Latin Americans, and all immigrants alien to the former Protestant, white America.” Focusing on white ethnic hierarchies enables Szejnert to articulate both the hypocrisy of US policy-makers and the way the overwhelming prioritization of white personhood led to the quota system’s becoming, in all its ludicrousness, essentially a narcissism of petty differences. For the former, Szejnert points to a cartoon by the illustrator Hendrik Willem Van Loon of two pilgrims who have recently exited the Mayflower only to be stopped by a Native American on the shores of Plymouth Rock: “You can’t come in. The quota for 1620 is full.”

But as Paula Pitum’s troubles illustrate, the citizenship of anyone who isn’t the “good” kind of white is at the mercy of fashion or current events. Sumi Utsushigawa, a second-generation immigrant born in Los Angeles, had her family’s citizenship status forcefully upended by World War II, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s directive to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to prepare a list of “enemy aliens.” Utsushigawa’s father, a photographer for the LA Times and the LA Examiner, was arrested by the FBI in 1942. In order to survive, her family began selling furniture, appliances, and photography equipment at cut-rate prices. Eventually, her family, and thousands of other Japanese Americans, were interned at Ellis Island, which had been converted into a Coast Guard base. This ostensible act of national security had the opposite effect of turning its own citizens against it; Utsushigawa recalls “the first generation weep[ing] when they realize[d] it was really true that Japan lost” after the country’s unconditional surrender following the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “All the great messengers of life have been there to point a way and they all teach the same thing,” Utsushigawa says:

The Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you. If you did, there would be peace. There would be no conflict. But nobody practices their religion. They wear it on Sundays or on the Sabbath.

And in this context, Fiorello La Guardia pops up yet again. As mayor of New York (and the director of the Office of Civilian Defense), he closes Japanese clubs and gathering places in the city and orders Japanese New Yorkers to stay in their homes. “Fiorello is absolutely convinced the good of America demands vigilance,” Szejnert writes, which encapsulates everything that is right and wrong with how the US views immigration. During the political convention season, many commentators were left baffled by former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley’s asserting that her Indian American family faced descrimination when she was growing up but nonetheless concluding that it “is a lie” to call the United States a racist nation, but, as Szejnert’s conscientious and methodical book suggests, immigrant experience is trained precisely toward this contradiction. The brass ring for minorities is assimilation; to coalesce around a shunning of the “other” amounts to adopting American values. Maintaining this aspirational hegemony seems just as plausible a reason for why Donald Trump increased his 2020 vote totals with Black, Latino, and Asian voters by 4 percent, 3 percent, and 5 percent, respectively—despite wholesale assaults on immigration—as the right’s boilerplate pillorying of the Democrat’s “radical agenda.”

While there is a distinct lack of Black and brown voices in the stories recounted in Ellis Island, that absence is made even more jarring in the sense that it affirms how removed those voices were—and are—from the levers of power. One brief but notable exception is Thomas W. Matthew, the founder of the National Economic Growth and Reconstruction Organization (NEGRO), who squatted at Ellis Island in 1954 along with 63 other men, women, and children for 13 days. Ellis Island had closed its doors permanently that year, the result of dwindling immigration numbers—103,000 during the postwar decade, compared with over 1 million in 1907—and vastly different means of travel. In addition to airplanes overtaking ocean liners as the dominant method of intercontinental travel, La Guardia’s namesake airport provided thousands of jobs for workers who might otherwise have been staffed at Ellis, which was prohibitively expensive to keep open based on its population.

The island remained dormant for 11 years, until Lyndon B. Johnson designated it a National Park in 1965. Both Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson were pegged at different times to design the park, and both projects languished because of a lack of congressional funding. The Vietnam War was raging in 1969 when NEGRO showed up asking for a resocialization center, a series of workshops, and the restoration of the island’s Great Hall as an immigration monument and meeting place for different ethnic groups. What they got was the right to use Ellis Island for five years, restricted to its south end, with the acknowledgment that the park would be keeping tabs on them. A planned fundraiser to purchase the island failed, and as winter approached, Matthew’s ranks dwindled down to four before they abandoned the project entirely, leaving Ellis poised between a begrudged acknowledgement of the island’s contributions, and a frustration that it could be doing so much more—and should be.

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