Tarnished Portal

Ellis Island’s Doubled-Edged Legacy

In Encountering Ellis Island, historian Ronald Bayor probes the opportunities and the bigotry faced by immigrants to the U.S.


Of the 196 recognized sovereign nations on the planet today, the United States is often portrayed in casual clichés and popular culture as a model country when it comes to multiculturalism and racial tolerance.

This fairytale of a cosmopolitan-cultural-melting-pot that is the envy of the international community certainly has its charms. And there is an element of truth to it. But it’s a story with many missing chapters. Just look back at the five waves of immigration in American history and you’ll agree it hasn’t all been about peace and harmony.

The first U.S. immigrants were known as the Clovis people and arrived 13,000 years ago from Asia. Their population numbers were small to begin with. But by the time the first white explorers arrived in 1492, the Native American population, in what is now the United States, had ballooned to somewhere between two and six million (numbers still contested among many scholars).

By 1910 that number had dwindled to 266,000. These statistics, however, are more accurate because they are the result of a national census. This drastic population decline was mainly caused by the introduction of European diseases. And war played a significant role as well.

The second wave, in the 17th and 18th century, consisted of a million Europeans, mostly British, in search of more land and better opportunities. With these white settlers came another half a million Africans, who were kidnapped to work as slaves in the original 13 American colonies.

After the American Revolution, and following a law by Congress in 1808, which restricted the importation of more African slaves, immigration slowed down considerably for another generation. It then picked up again in the 1840s and ’50s, when Germans, seeking a better life, and Irish, escaping a potato famine, both crossed the Atlantic in droves, until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.

The fourth wave, from 1892-1924—in which 14 million immigrants journeyed westward—was unprecedented. A drastic increase in American manufacturing at this time was one major attraction for immigrants from southern and eastern Europe seeking employment.

Finally, the fifth wave began when Congress abolished national quotas in 1965, and another group of immigrants, mainly Latinos, Mexicans, and Asians, began arriving. More than 20 million people legally entered the U.S. in this last phase. But the open policy was then curtailed again when border controls tightened significantly following 9/11.

It’s the fourth phase that serves as the subject of Ronald H. Bayor’s Ellis Island: How European Immigrants Entered America. Armed with research from the archives of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, Bayor, professor of urban and ethnic history at the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts in Georgia, builds a vivid portrait of what it was like for the millions of immigrants who came searching for the American dream during this mass exodus from Europe.

Bayor claims Ellis Island represented much more than just a processing station for immigrants. In fact, the book’s thesis wrestles with the contradiction that’s always been apparent in American society: the promotion of acceptance, equality, fairness, and freedom of religion on one hand and the espousal of racial nationalism and ethnic discrimination on the other.

The most effective weapon Anglo-Saxon elites have used to preserve power in American society has been the rule of law. And, as Bayor constantly reminds us, there has been a great deal of racial legislation in the history of the U.S..

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prevented Chinese immigrants from entering the U.S. The 1891 Immigration Act declared certain classes of individuals as unfit to become American citizens. And in 1917, Congress passed a law requiring all immigrants over the age of 16 to pass a literacy test to gain entry into the United States.

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But the most racially motivated law of all, Bayor points out, was passed in 1924. The National Origins Act set a limit of 150,000 immigrant visas per year. Seventy percent of these went to British, Irish, and Germans. Italians, Poles, and Russians received just 10 percent.

These laws took their cue from western science, which at the time held sacred the views of social Darwinism and eugenics to be sacred. The message was clear: Western and Northern Europeans were superior to all other races and ethnicities.

This warped ideology, Bayor argues, trickled down into all facets of American immigration policy. The doctors who oversaw the medical examinations at Ellis Island led by example. Bayor quotes one of them, Dr. Alfred C. Reed, who wrote in 1913 of how western and northern Europeans sent a “stalwart stock,” while southern and eastern Europeans possessed a “deteriorating character [which] makes restriction justifiable and necessary.”

The numerous voices that Bayor quotes liberally—mainly Jewish and Italian immigrants, as well as members of the Anglo-Saxon establishment—significantly buttress his argument with generous evidence. This consistency is the book’s greatest strength.

It also illustrates a very important fact: that fear was the most familiar emotion that immigrants felt as they passed through customs at New York harbor for the first time. These various testimonies detail humiliating medical examinations immigrants were forced to undergo in squalid and overcrowded conditions. We also read about families being separated for life because of ruthless deportation rules.

Bayor does acknowledge though that despite all these problems, Ellis Island, for the most part, managed to move immigrants through in an efficient manner that worked.

There are also rare moments of enthusiasm: “I shall never forget the astonishment I felt at my first glimpse of this great city [which] appeared as a tremendous overstuffed roar, where people just burst with a desire to live,” wrote a 23-year-old Russian immigrant, Morris Shapiro, describing his initial thoughts upon seeing New York for the first time in 1923.

While these voices provide a weight of credibility to Bayor’s argument, the constant toing and froing between various characters creates a dysfunctional rhythm to the narrative, robbing it of a steady, cohesive flow.

Moreover, the concise nature of the book means that racial prejudice isn’t explored in any great depth. Books such as Carl H. Nightingale’s Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities treat this subject with far more insight, dexterity, and detail. And while Bayor briefly comments on literature that popularized eugenics, such as Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, he fails to discuss how social Darwinists such as Karl Pearson, Paul Popenoe, Roswell Johnson, and Lothrop Stoddard, were all paramount—and persuasive—in shaping the racial politics of the progressive era: at least two presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, openly flirted with notions of racial superiority.

Something Bayor hints at but which Nightingale clearly confirms is this: American exceptionalism has always been bound up in the notion that it was the manifest destiny of white, protestant, Anglo-Saxons to conquer what they considered the continent’s inferior races. Plainly contradicting clichés like “the land of opportunity,” this mindset also gives phrases such as “the greatest nation on earth” a new set of imperial values.

Despite its narrow scope and its brevity (184 pages), Encountering Ellis Island nevertheless provides a solid framework for confronting the United States’ racially fraught past. And as Bayor constantly reminds us, the continual jostling for power among various ethnic communities remains as prevalent in America today as it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Only the scapegoats change as new immigrants arrive and the old ones move through the class barriers. Put bluntly: today’s social pariahs are undocumented Mexicans and Latinos, not Italians and Jews.

This prejudice is not uniquely American, but the U.S. has dealt with a larger immigrant population than any other nation in history. Owning up to and understanding past prejudices may not make ethnic tensions instantly disappear. But it’s a stepping-stone at least in opening up a more robust debate on immigration policy in contemporary American society.