Title: Encountering Ellis Island: How European Immigrants Entered America
Author: Ronald H. Bayor
No. of Pages: 184
Origins: Johns Hopkins University Press
Release Date: 8 April 2014
Bottom Line: Interesting glimpse into what fortitude it took to come to the US
“America is famously known as a nation of immigrants. Millions of Europeans journeyed to the United States in the peak years of 1892–1924, and Ellis Island, New York, is where the great majority landed. Ellis Island opened in 1892 with the goal of placing immigration under the control of the federal government and systematizing the entry process. Encountering Ellis Island introduces readers to the ways in which the principal nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American portal for Europeans worked in practice, with some comparison to Angel Island, the main entry point for Asian immigrants.
What happened along the journey? How did the processing of so many people work? What were the reactions of the newly arrived to the process (and threats) of inspection, delays, hospitalization, detention, and deportation? How did immigration officials attempt to protect the country from diseased or “unfit” newcomers, and how did these definitions take shape and change? What happened to people who failed screening? And how, at the journey’s end, did immigrants respond to admission to their new homeland?
Ronald H. Bayor, a senior scholar in immigrant and urban studies, gives voice to both immigrants and Island workers to offer perspectives on the human experience and institutional imperatives associated with the arrival experience. Drawing on firsthand accounts from, and interviews with, immigrants, doctors, inspectors, aid workers, and interpreters, Bayor paints a vivid and sometimes troubling portrait of the immigration process.
In reality, Ellis Island had many liabilities as well as assets. Corruption was rife. Immigrants with medical issues occasionally faced a hostile staff. Some families, on the other hand, reunited in great joy and found relief at their journey’s end.
Encountering Ellis Island lays bare the profound and sometimes-victorious story of people chasing the American Dream: leaving everything behind, facing a new language and a new culture, and starting a new American life.”
Thoughts: Encountering Ellis Island explores the experiences of the millions of Europeans who flooded into the United States in the latter half of the 19th century and well into the 20th century. Mr. Bayor leaves no stone unturned in his coverage of the corruption and the confusion, the controversy and the chaos immigrants faced as they tried to enter the country. His research is thorough and his presentation of it is matter-of-fact. Throughout it all, he strives to debunk certain myths about what the immigrants faced.
One of the lessons learned by Encountering Ellis Island is the fact that immigration has always been and probably always will be exceedingly controversial. Immigration laws limiting who and how many were allowed into the country go back as far as the 19th century. This look into immigration law shows that things really have not changed over the century in that immigration continues to be a political hot button. However, it is the little differences, like the focus on productive members of society, which prove so interesting.
While the title intimates that Mr. Bayor’s book is solely about Ellis Island, in actuality he spends as much time discussing immigration from the West into Angel Island in San Francisco. The differences between the two experiences are startling and sad. While immigrants faced prejudices on both islands, the blatant racism against the Chinese on Alice Island is a blight on the immigration story, something Mr. Bayor presents without emotion.
Encountering Ellis Island breaks down the immigration experience from Europe to New York. It is at once fascinating and depressing. Based on their experiences on the ships, on Ellis Island, and beyond, it is a miracle anyone opted to immigrate to the United States. That so many did is a testament to their fortitude and ability to withstand confusing rules, corruption, and the organized chaos that was Ellis Island.