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Flying the Quarantine flag

Deaths in Quarantine, 1909-1911


Going Through Ellis Island

Part 3 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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Those immigrants who are to be deported, or who for any reason must be kept on the island some time, are placed in the detention quarantine. These are not open to visitors. Tiers of beds are provided, accommodating 1,800 persons, but often this number is exceeded by 500. These quarters are among the most interesting points on the island. The women and children of all races and tongues are in one large room, and the men in another. In mild weather they are all sent on to the fine broad roof of the building. Not long ago a Danish woman who could speak no English and whose baby was in the hospital with diphtheria, became a second mother to a coal-black pickaninny, (sic) who had come up from Trinidad on a coffee-ship and whose mother was also in the hospital. Again race wars occur among the children, and Turks and Armenians will battle ferociously with Italians. Mention should be made of the large immigrant dining-room which seats 1,100, where the missionary societies hold a polyglot Christmas entertainment each year.

The Matron and some of her charges on the roof

But the observer at Ellis Island sees only the immigrant stream flowing in. He does not see what results when it has been distributed over the country. No graver questions are before the American nation to-day than those associated with immigration, and none whose correct solution demands more imperative attention. One of these vital questions which is in special imperative attention. One of these vital questions which is in special prominence just now, is the relation of immigration to mental disorders. This question concerns New York state more acutely than other states only because New York has the largest number of alien defectives.

In February, 1912, there were 33,311 committed insane cases in New York state institutions. It is estimated that more than 8,000 of these or, roughly, 25 per cent., are aliens, and this is exclusive of those conditions of mental defectiveness listed under idiocy, imbecility and feeblemindedness. In the New York schools there are about 7,000 distinctly feeble-minded children, or about 1 per cent. of the school population. Again this does not include idiots and imbeciles to an equal number, not attending school, nor border-line case and morally defective children. The total number of feeble-minded children in New York is about 10,000. According to the figures of the last census, 30 per cent. of the feeble-minded children in the general population throughout the country are the progeny of aliens or naturalized citizens. Thus the presence of 3,000 of New York's feeble-minded children can safely be laid to immigration. These figures show the extreme necessity of careful medical inspection of immigrants. But there are many complicating factors. It is difficult to recognize many types of insanity. It is almost impossible to detect feeble-mindedness in infants and young children. Yet in spite of this, the medical officers at Ellis Island are doing thorough and effective work, and do not at all deserve the ignorant criticism of those unfamiliar with the difficulties of that work.

A point where criticism is unfortunately valid is in the matter of the deportation of aliens who within three years after landing show themselves subject to any of those conditions which the law excludes, or who become public charges from any cause, said condition or cause having existed prior to landing. If the present entrance inspection was reinforced by a determined administration of these deportation laws, and if all cases whose exclusion the law makes mandatory, and which are now certified by the medical officers, were actually excluded, there would be little cause of complaint. But such a condition does not obtain. The medical officers have nothing whatever to do in passing judgment on whether an immigrant shall be admitted or not. Their province alone is to certify to his physical and mental status. The question of admission, as well as of deportation, rests with the officials of the Department of Commerce and Labor.

Much easier is the control of organic physical diseases, as, for the example, hookworm infection. A survey of the prevalence of hookworm disease throughout the world made by the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission, shows that this infection belts the world in a zone 66º wide with the equator near its middle, and that practically every country in this zone is heavily infected. It is evident how grave a danger lurks in immigration from any country where the hookworm is prevalent. Among the worst afflicted countries is India, where it is estimated that from 60 to 80 per cent. of the population of 300,000,000 harbor this parasite. This leads peculiar interest to the movement of Hindu coolies (sic) into the United States in the last few years. A shipload of these coolies landing recently in San Francisco were found by health authorities of that port to have 90 per cent. infected with hookworm. Every colony and camp of Hindus in California to-day is a dangerous source of infection to all the country around. A rigid quarantine has been established against further importation of this class of aliens.

There are numerous other questions besides those which have been touched on here. Immigration presents one of the most serious problems facing this country. Ellis Island is where the needs and dangers of the country in this regard are focused. Its ever-changing stream of humanity furnishes a fascinating realm for the student of human nature, as well as for study of the great question of economics and eugenics which are involved.

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