Friday, 23 March 2012

Island of Hope, Island of Tears

I wrote a historical walking tour for Rama last year about the story of Ellis Island in New York. Having been there twice, it’s such a fascinating place to visit with so much history. Incredibly, nearly 50% of all Americans can trace their ancestry back through Ellis Island, however, not all the “huddled masses” of immigrants were welcomed…

Ellis Island was used as an immigration station from the early 1890's. From the very beginning however, some immigrants, for medical or frankly, racist, reasons were detained, and 2% of those who arrived at Ellis Island were sent home. In May 1882, the first Immigration Exclusion Act was passed to limit the number of Chinese immigrants travelling to the United States. This included skilled and unemployed men, and they would be heavily fined and most likely arrested if they were caught trying to enter the country. In 1892, the Geary Act upheld the Chinese exclusion law and stated that all Chinese citizens in the United States had to carry a licence proving their identity. These laws were not revoked until 1943.

In 1891, an act ensured that all passengers with contagious diseases, mental illness or a history of violent crime would not be allowed into America. The ability to speak English also became a prerequisite for naturalization. Thus by the early twentieth century, much legislation had been passed to exclude anarchists, prostitutes, beggars and ‘dependents’. Tensions over Eastern European immigration led President Calvin Coolidge to approve the Immigration Quota Act of 1921. The act, using records from 1910, reduced the number of immigrants to 3% of the population of that immigrant group within the United States. Between 1921 and 1922, the number of immigrants processed at Ellis Island was reduced by one half. In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act further limited the number from 300,000 to 150,000 – based on the numbers of ethnic groups in 1890, 2% of that number would be allowed to emigrate to the United States. Unsurprisingly, immigrants from Britain and Western Europe did not face a reduction compared to Eastern Europeans since they were not recognised as a 'danger'. European immigrants could be 'Americanized' and posed no threat to society, as opposed to non-Europeans

For some, the island stayed true to its nickname of “Island of hope, island of tears”…

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