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Flying the Quarantine flag

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

 

A Despatch from H.M. Ambassador at Washington
reporting on Conditions at Ellis Island Immigration Station
Presented to Parliament by command of His Majesty, 1923

Sir A. Geddes to the Marquess Curzon of Kedleston. (Received January 29, 1923)

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     That is all, I think, that need be said at this time about the staff and the buildings of the immigration station and the arrangements to board and lodge those detained at the station, except this:-

Ellis Island is a Government institution, and, like all Government institutions in all countries, it is almost aggressively institutional. It is impossible for anyone on the island, whether on the staff, an immigrant, a "deportee," or even a visitor, to escape from the pervasive sense of "institutionalism".

     The essential problem of Ellis Island is not, however, its institutionalism, or its arrangements for boarding and lodging immigrants, or its buildings, or even its staff. It is the immigrants and would-be immigrants who create it. If they were all accustomed to the same standards of personal cleanliness and consideration for their fellows, Ellis Island would know few real difficulties, but they are not. Those who pass through the immigration station range from the highly educated and gently nurtured, now fallen into straitened circumstances, to the utterly brutalised victim of poverty and oppression in some scarce civilised land. They speak many tongues and dialects. They all, lady, prostitute, mechanic, rabbi, and what-not, are frightened, nervous, shy and strange to their surroundings. They are quite ignorant, too, of what is expected of them and have no conception of what is going to happen next, or why anything happens. Anxious and worried old men and women, young men, girls and little children drift about rooms into which they have been put, or crowd round doors which they think may open. The units in this heterogeneous mass of humanity obviously dislike some of their contacts with one another and yet like sheep follow where any leads. Like sheep, too, they have to be herded and, by hurdles, kept from straying.

     It really is remarkable to see how well the miserable mobs of nervous human beings, with all their worldly goods, are manoeuvred through the legally necessary examinations and are despatched to their destinations. The officials certainly deserve credit for what they do achieve. Still, detention on Ellis Island must be a hateful experience for all of any sensibility who pass its portals.

     When a barge-load of immigrants arrives at the island wharf, the crowded people pass on shore and are quickly scrutinised for signs of infectious disease. If a child has developed measles, let us say, he is picked out for treatment in the isolation hospital. The mother passes on with the crowd. Her feelings may be imagined.

     The crowd files into the waiting rooms. These are caged with heavy wire net. It is necessary that they should be to prevent individuals straying. Still, the mental effect cannot be added happiness. From the waiting room the men and women are called out in batches, male and female, for examination by the medical officers. It is obviously impossible precisely to synchronise the calling out of the males and females of the same party. Not understanding what is happening, strange and nervous, some of the wretched immigrants believe that they are being separated from their friends for ever. The Commissioner of Immigration told me that this calling of a man into one room and his wife into another, even though they are only to be separated for a few minutes, leads in some cases to pathetic scenes.

     However, they are at length shepherded to the appropriate room. There an unpleasant experience awaits them. The rooms were not designed to provide facilities for the sort of medical examination now required by law. The arrangements are makeshift. During the years that I was Director of Recruiting and Minister of National Service I saw many medical boards in Great Britain. Until the whole recruiting medical service had been reformed by Sir James Galloway, many of them were very far from perfect. Still, no recruiting medical board that I saw was quite so badly accommodated as the medical inspection board I saw at work at Ellis Island. No separate dressing rooms or cubicles are provided. The men strip to their trousers in a crowd jammed between coat-racks. They have to pile their things on the racks higgledy-piggledy — the clean clothes of the washed on the foul clothes of the unwashed. Personally, I thought it disgusting for the washed.

     There were five doctors at work when I saw the board. Their duty is to ascertain whether or no each man is free from certain scheduled diseases and transient infections. If the existence of a scheduled malady is suspected, the individual concerned is sent to hospital for diagnosis. No attempt at final diagnosis is made by the board. This is the deliberate policy, and I am sure it is perfectly sound and fair to the immigrants. The inspections that I saw were, from the professional point of view, considering their purpose, thorough and effective; from the point of view of a sensitive immigrant distinctly unpleasant, I should imagine.

     The line of male immigrants approached the first medical officer with their trousers open. The doctor examined their external genitals for signs of venereal infection. Next he examined the inguinal canals for hernia. The doctor wore rubber gloves. I saw him "do" nine or ten men. His gloves were not cleansed between cases. I saw one nice, clean-looking Irish boy examined immediately after a very unpleasant-looking individual who, I understood, came from some Eastern European district. I saw the boy shudder. I did not wonder. The doctor's rubber gloves were with hardly a second's interval in contact with his private parts after having been soiled, in the surgical sense at least, by contact with those of the unpleasant-looking individual.

     The examinations of the heart and lungs, etc., of the male immigrants seemed to be effectively and expertly made.

     The examination of the female immigrants is made by women doctors. The arrangements for undressing are similar to those for the men. There is no examination of female genitalia except in cases suspected of venereal disease, when privacy is provided.

     I saw no mental tests performed, but I saw the rooms in which these examinations are made. Their equipment seemed to me effective and adequate.

     From the medical inspection rooms the immigrants who are not put back for further examination proceed to a great central hall. Here, if everything has gone well, the family parties are reunited. Most efficiently the people are organised into groups corresponding to the ship's lists, and pass before the inspectors, who test their capacity to read and see that there is no reason to doubt their eligibility to land. Those that are granted entry, the vast majority of all immigrants, are now done with Ellis Island and at once get away to New York, or, if they are going west, pass to the railway booking hall, where they exchange their vouchers for rail tickets, are told when they will start and how they will be taken to the railway station. Their baggage is skilfully and expeditiously handled. They can purchase at surprisingly low cost most excellent food for the journey and then they, too, get away, done with Ellis Island for ever. All the arrangements for handling admitted immigrants are efficient and reflect high credit on those concerned. They are, in fact, a very good example of American business administration.

     Apart from the admitted immigrants, there are first the temporarily detained, i.e. , those who are admitted, but who for some reason cannot leave the island at once. Possibly they are waiting for money from friends to complete their journeys, perhaps to California. Possibly they are waiting for an hour or two till friends arrive to pilot them to their new homes. Possibly all members of a family but one have been readily passed in, and that one may have had to go to the hospital for diagnosis. Pulmonary tuberculosis may be suspected or mental deficiency, or there may be a suspicion of contract labour attaching to one of the party, or illiteracy.

     I feel profoundly sorry for some of the temporarily detained — a mother waiting for a delayed child, or a father with his children anxiously watching for his wife to come to him. The very heart of the tragedy of Ellis Island is in the room of the temporarily detained. It is no one's fault and cannot be avoided, unless immigrants to the United States are to be finally approved for admission in their own land before they set out upon their journey.

     Large numbers of the immigrants have to go before a board to determine whether or not they may be admitted. I saw five or six of these boards at work. The proceedings were decorous and seemly; the arrangements for witnesses who come to speak for or against the admission of an immigrant are good. Every immigrant rejected by a board is told of his right to appeal to the Secretary of Labour in Washington.

     This arrangement, the theory of which is probably right, is in practice nothing short of diabolic. For days some wretched creature is kept in suspense. The appeal board at Washington, which advises the Secretary of Labour, works on paper records, tempered, I have heard it said, by political pressure. The Secretary of Labour may be busy, overwhelmed, perhaps, with work in connection with some labour dispute, or anything. Days slip by, into weeks sometimes, before a decision is reached. When the doubt affects one member of a family, perhaps a child, the mental anguish must be excruciating. The system is to blame. In my judgment there can be no question that power to decide should be delegated by law to someone on the spot with the facts and the people before him. If the United States Government will expedite the decision of appeals so that the results can be announced within twenty-four hours of the completed collection of the facts, the anguish of Ellis Island will be appreciably reduced.

     In addition to immigrants, Ellis Island has to receive stowaways and men and women ordered to be deported. The conditions under which these unhappy creatures and those refused admittance for being in excess of quota spend their time on Ellis Island are perhaps as satisfactory as the building will permit. Personally, I should prefer imprisonment in Sing-Sing to incarceration on Ellis Island awaiting deportation. To add to the mental torments of those sentenced to deportation, well-meaning, kindly people, with heads softer even than their hearts, seek to entertain them with what are called "Americanisation" addresses and cinemato-graph films. The purpose of these is to tell immigrants how great a country America is and to make them good citizens. A "Red" under sentence of deportation has possibly views of his own on the subject of the United States. So, too, possibly have those who are to be deported because they are in excess of their national quota.

     As a matter of fact, what Ellis Island needs, in my judgment, is to be relieved of the presence of about one-half of the people who are poured into it. If a deportation station were established somewhere else with suitable buildings and reasonably extensive grounds much would be gained, but there certainly ought to be increased accommodation for immigrants. Before seeing Ellis Island I had imagined that segregation by nationalities might be possible. I am now satisfied that it is not. The flow of immigrants from each nation is too irregular to permit of any satisfactory system of national segregation being devised, and yet some division of the immigrant stream seems to me essential if Ellis Island is not to be abandoned and a new and larger station built elsewhere. After considering the matter with some care, I have come to think that it might be feasible to divide the stream into its Jewish and non-Jewish parts. Persons of the Jewish faith require special food and special utensils, and their being mixed with Christians on the island undoubtedly creates considerable administrative difficulty.

     Whether the Jews should be sent to Ellis Island or to a new station seems to me to be a matter of no importance. The fact is that Ellis Island is too small to accommodate in comfort the numbers of immigrants that come to the port of New York. It is also a fact that to divide the stream by nationalities would introduce more administrative difficulties and, I believe, more real discomfort than it would cure. To divide the stream on the basis of its food requirements seems to me administratively feasible. In the dining rooms that division has to be made in any event. I am well aware that all proposals to separate human beings on a basis of religious belief are certain to meet with opposition, and that failures to meet special religious requirements, as in the case of food, are equally certain to meet with opposition.

     I believe that the choice of the United States Government is by circumstances limited to three possibilities: (1) To continue Ellis Island as at present, with such minor improvements as are possible; (2) to build a relief station and to supply at it, or at Ellis Island, but not at both, food prepared in accordance with the Jewish ritual and to send all immigrant Jews to that station and all non-Jews to the other; or (3) to abandon Ellis Island and build a completely new station somewhere else in New York Harbour or on its shores.

     Undoubtedly, to improve Ellis Island is for the United States Government to follow the line of least resistance.

     I have not so far spoken of the so-called first- and second-class accommodation on the island. Possibly the best comment on this was made by Mr. Tod when he said: "I am trying to get all the fittings replaced and the rooms painted." There can be no doubt that he accurately appreciates what these rooms need if they are to remain in their present sites in the existing buildings. Rooms lighted by skylights and ventilated from a hall are, however, not really pleasant, especially when the hal1 itself is in need of ventilation.

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