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Flying the Quarantine flag

THE FORGOTTEN OF ELLIS ISLAND
Deaths in Quarantine, 1909-1911

 

Going Through Ellis Island

Part 1 of 3
By Dr. Alfred C. Reed, U.S. Public Health Service, Ellis Island

Source: The Popular Science Monthly, Vol. LXXXII, No. 1, January 1913, pages 5-18

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It is at least a question whether the visitor to Ellis Island looks at the newly landed immigrant with eyes any more curious than those with which the immigrant looks at the visitor. The one sees the timidity, the surprise, the fear and the expectation of the new-comer. The other sees what is to him a wonderful model of all that is American.

It is a busy island. Yet in all the rushing hurry and seeming confusion of a full day, in all the babel (sic) of language, the excite and fright and wonder of the thousands of newly-landed, and in all the manifold and endless details that make up the immigration plant, there is system, silent, watchful, swift, efficient. Five thousand immigrants in a day is no uncommon figure. Five thousand six hundred passed through last Easter Sunday. Five hundred and twenty-five persons are employed on the island exclusive of the score of medical officers and the hundred or more attendants of the Public Health Service.

Main Immigrant Building

It is an island crowded full of pathos and tragedy, of startling contrasts and unexpected humor. A burly, laughing giant of a man came down the line on afternoon, elated to have reached the land of his life-long hope.

The next morning he lay stricken with meningitis and that evening was dead. A young mother was separated from her two-year-old baby because the baby had diphtheria. In a few days the baby died, and the mother went on alone to the father waiting in the west. The reunion of broken families, and the old folks coming to live in the home prepared by the pioneer children, constantly afford views of human nature unmasked and unrestrained.


All races and conditions of men come together here and adjust themselves more or less amicably to each other. Children with no common bond of race, language or religion, play together perhaps more happily for that very reason. Some have been here for months. In the New York room, a Flemish couple have waited seven long months for a little girl who is still sick in the hospital. Every morning on his rounds they ask the doctor how soon she can come to them, and thrice a week they visit her bedside. Perhaps by now their long waiting is finished, and she has gone on with them happily to the new home in America.

A Polish mother holding her baby up to see the doctor.

America is the land of the alien, and even now his mark is plain on all our institutions. But while the principal increase in population has been by immigration, the character of that immigration has changed markedly in the past thirty years. Previous to 1883, western and northern Europe sent a stalwart stock, 95 per cent. of all who came. They sought new homes and were settlers. Scandinavians, Danes, Dutch, Germans, French, Swiss and the English islanders, they were the best of Europe's blood. They were industrious, patriotic and farsighted. They were productive and constructive workers. Where nothing had been, they planted, and mined, and built, and toiled with their hands, while yet finding time to educate their children and train them to love the new mother-county and appreciate the blessings she furnished.

But for three decades the immigrant tide has flowed more and more from eastern and southern Europe. The others still come, but they are far outnumbered by the Jews, Slavs, the Balkans and Austrian races, and those from the Mediterranean countries.

In contrast with the earlier immigration, these peoples are less inclined to transplant their homes and affections. They come to make what they can in a few years of arduous unremitting labor, and then return to their homes to spend it in comparative comfort and ease. It has been well said that American is their workshop, Europe their home. Thirty per cent of them return to their former homes.

As a class, they contribute little of lasting value but the work of their hands for which they are well paid. And from what they ear they send home no small part. In 1907 they sent $275,000,000 out of the country. True, this money was earned, but its greater value in investment and development was lost. In contrast to their predecessors, the immigrants since 1883 tend to form a floating population. They do not amalgamate. They are here in no small degree for what they can get. It is not always true that they come to supply a real demand. The periodical advertisement of a national demand for cheap labor does not spring from a true need, even though the influx of cheap labor might put more money in the employer's pocket.

Italian Girls

Such is the type of the newer immigration, and its changing and deteriorating character makes restriction justifiable and necessary. No one can stand at Ellis Island and see the physical and mental wrecks who are stopped there, or realize that if the bars were lowered ever so little the inform and mentally unsound would come literally in hordes, without becoming a firm believer in restriction and admission of only the best. The average citizen does not realize the enormous numbers of mentally disordered and morally delinquent persons in the United States nor to how great an extent these classes are recruited from aliens, and their children. Restriction is vitally necessary if our truly American ideals and institutions are to persist, and if our inherited stock of good American manhood is not to be depreciated.

This restriction can be made operative at various points, but the key to the whole situation is the medical requirement. No alien is desirable as an immigrant if he be mentally or physically unsound, while, on the other hand, mental and physical health in the wide sense carries with it moral, social and economic fitness. The present United States immigration law (legislation of 1907) is very definite in its statement of medical requirements for admission. The law divides physically and mentally defective aliens into three classes. Class A includes those whose exclusion is mandatory under the law because of a specified defect or disease. In this class are idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, the feeble-minded, insane and those subject to tuberculosis, or a dangerous or loathsome contagious disease. When a medical diagnosis has been made of these conditions, that person is automatically excluded. In Class B are conditions which are not mentioned in Class A, but which make the person affected liable to become a public charge or affect his ability to earn a living. Class C includes defective and diseased conditions not included under A or B but which must nevertheless be certified for the information of the immigration officials.

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