Imagine leaving behind everything you know for the chance of a better life. For millions of people, that dream became true the moment they saw the Statue of Liberty and set foot on Ellis Island.
For years, America has been described as the new promised land; a land of opportunities and freedom, to the point that millions of people were and still are willing to risk everything -even their lives- in the hope to make it there. The United States has had a long history of immigration, so long that we can say that most of the population is actually a product of this mobility, making the country a multicultural nation of people coming from all over the world.
These days, we hear so much about immigration, that it would be easy to believe that we’re experiencing the biggest migration wave in history. However, there's no doubt that the biggest wave happened in the early twentieth century. This was a time when the US had an open border policy that made it the most desirable and popular choice for everyone who was looking for better opportunities. But what was happening back then that led to such a massive immigration flux?
In the late 19th century, Europe was, in political and economic terms, like a volcano that erupted as WWI. This, of course, wasn’t the first time the US was a favorite spot for immigrants. Since the first colonies were established, migration, in general, was common, to the point that by the late nineteenth century, millions of people were certain that the only way to really change their lives for good was to start from scratch in this new land. Up until the nineteenth century, most European immigrants came from western countries like England, Italy, Ireland, and Germany. They were people who were either trying to make a fortune, or wanted to experience religious and/or political freedom.
After the Civil War, the US underwent a period of industrialization and growth promoted by the government. This was the time of the great magnates, like Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller, and it was a time of expansion and modernization. To achieve that, they needed lots of cheap labor, and this wave of migration gave them precisely that. The railway tracks were mainly built and assembled by Chinese immigrants, while most workers in the big cities came from Italy, Germany, Ireland, and other countries from Western Europe. So, naturally, Americans (mainly businessmen and investors) not only approved, but also encouraged open immigration policies, so that people could go do all that hard work.
It was at this moment of prosperity that Ellis Island opened. Back then, there was no control over the people who made it to the US. Anyone could really enter the country as they saw fit, and this was something that was making American citizens very anxious. For that matter, the government decided to designate specific entry points to the country, so they could control and even select those “worthy” of moving to the country. Ellis Island became the busiest of them all.
Now, we've barely talked about the fact that one of the main reasons why people from Europe migrated to the US was the social, economic, and political circumstances that were gestating in the continent prior to WWI. The problem came when the vast majority of immigrants started coming from Eastern Europe. That was when the country adopted horrible xenophobic and discriminatory attitudes towards those people they felt were “alien” to their own culture and way of life (does this sound familiar?).
For instance, there were many people coming from Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Serbia, and Turkey as a result of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913). The Russians started immigrating right when WWI was about to start to escape from mandatory military service (as many other people did from the countries involved), but there was an increase when the Russian Revolution started in 1917. At the same time, anti-Semitic sentiment was increasing dramatically all over Europe, pushing thousands and thousands of Jews to flee to a place with religious freedom.
It’s estimated that before WWI started, only 70 percent of those who embarked to the US actually made it. This was either because some died on those long journeys, or because many were actually scammed and sent to other ports. However, of those who actually made it, only 2% were denied entrance. According to the registry and documentation, in 1907 (the year when most immigrants entered the country), 1.25 million people were accepted. When the US entered the War, most of those male immigrants denied entry were actually offered to join the army in exchange for citizenship upon their return. But of course, this wouldn't last very long, and after the war, the government started taking measures to reduce the number of immigrants.
There were three main laws and policies implemented in the following years. The first one was a Literacy Test, implemented in 1917. Immigrants had to pass a reading and writing test in English because they claimed they needed literate people who could contribute to the country. In 1921, they implemented the Emergency Quota Test, in which they reduced the number of open entries to a maximum 357,000 per year. That was the maximum; in theory, they would only accept the equivalent of 3% of the overseas population in 1910. Finally, in 1924, the number was reduced to 150,000 and the quota reduced to 2% of the overseas population in 1890. And as if that wasn’t enough, this last policy, called the National Origins Act, also denied entry to people coming from Asia, and Southern and Eastern Europe. This last one was due to a growing fear of communism in the US.
In the 1920s and up until the 1950s, Ellis Island stopped working as the gateway to control immigration. It actually became a detention center where they would hold prisoners of war, or basically anyone suspected of being a threat to the country. In 1954, Ellis Island closed its doors, only to be opened as a museum in 1990.
All this might sound like ancient history, but it’s crucial to understand that America was truly built by immigrant hands, and that it’s a multicultural country that can’t just expect people to believe there’s only one way to be American. Especially now, seeing these pictures is a great way to further with the immigration debate all over the world because those who decide who’s “worthy” of entering a country now were the ones praying for an opportunity not so long ago.
For more historical pictures, take a look at these: