Sunday, May 24, 2015

Bayor, Encountering Ellis Island

Ronald Bayor, Encountering Ellis Island: How European Immigrants Entered America.

With the Immigration Act of 1891 the federal government established a measure of control and order to immigration policy. The act replaced the aging Castle Garden facility in New York with the brand new Ellis Island, which was completed in 1892. This transition coincided with the shift in immigration from the traditional points of departures in northern Europe such as England, Germany, and Ireland to new sources in the eastern and southern parts of the continent, including Greece, Italy, Poland, and Russia. These “New Immigrants” included Catholics, Jews, and Orthodox who spoke indecipherable languages with strange alphabets. Although Bayor does not make any effort to tie the 1891 Immigration Act to the Long Progressive Era, it seems that one could attempt such an argument.

Much as recent headlines tell heartbreaking stories of immigrants who are taken advantage of, those of a century ago likewise experienced con artists out to rip them off. In one horrible example that Bayor recounts on page 25, a crooked captain dumped a boatload of Jewish Russian immigrants in Scotland. They thought they had landed in America. In other cases, immigrants who actually arrived in New York City were subjected to more routine scams and price-gouging fees connected with housing, job finding, and transportation.

Bayor describes both the inspection process and the services provided to immigrants at Ellis Island. Doctors provided mental and physical tests. Failure could lead to detention or deportation. This threatened to divide families, which could lead to very difficult decisions. There was an appeal process, but the agenda of the commissioner could significantly affect the zeal to which these policies were implemented. Detainees were provided food and living quarters, but these tended to be of a poor quality.  From the descriptions provided, the food sounded most unappetizing. The Red Cross operated education facilities for immigrant children that put an emphasis on Americanization and English language instruction. Medical services were also provided. The hospital averaged 242 patients a day in 1906 (p. 99) to give one benchmark. Some recreational facilities, including a movie house and game rooms, were available to detainees.

Encountering Ellis Island chronicles the effect that changes in immigration law had for new arrivals. Bayor argues that the literacy test established in 1917 was poor policy that inadvertently gave preference to criminals who were literate, but excluded the workers that America needed at the time. 

Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era will find Encountering Ellis Island a useful source on the immigrant experience. Genealogists will also find it valuable for the same reason. For those working on name changes, Bayor asserts that this did not happen at Ellis Island, a common myth in many a family lore. Name changes occurred either before leaving the old country or after departing Ellis Island in the new.

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