Ellis Island Gateway To America

Ellis Island is the symbol of American immigration, as it served as the gateway for millions of immirgrants to the U.S. On January 1, 1892, Ellis Island opened as a Federal Immigration Station, and from 1892 to 1954, 12 million immigrants passed through the Island, making it the most heavily trafficked stations in the nation. 

Along Came the Crowds

Immigration in America increased after 1900, prompting the construction of more hospital buildings, dormitories, and kitchens between 1900 and 1915 on the Island. Immigration decreased during World War I and the United States Navy and the Army Medical Department took control of the island to detain suspected enemy aliens before transferring them to other facilities. Ellis Island reopened to process immigrants in 1920.

The Journey to America

Immigrants arriving with first- or second-class tickets were processed through customs when they disembarked at the Hudson or East River piers. Immigrants who arrived with third-class or “steerage” tickets, or those who showed signs of illness, were also processed through Ellis Island. Harbor ferries brought the immigrants from their steamships to the island. After employees pinned identifying information to their clothing, the immigrants climbed the stairs to the Registry Room or Great Hall to begin the long process of medical and legal inspection.


Doctors examined each immigrant for contagious diseases and inspectors questioned them to determine if they might become public charges or illegal contract laborers. The immigrants were admitted, rejected, set aside for further investigation, or sent to the hospital. Approximately two percent of those entering the United States through Ellis Island were denied entry and 20 percent were detained on the island. Immigrants were denied entry because of disease, lack of money, or the lack of nearby relatives who would take responsibility for them. Immigrants denied entry could appeal to a Special Inquiry Board, which granted them entry if an immigrant aid society or other party would post their bond.

Use During WWII

During World War II, Ellis Island functioned principally as a detention center for alien enemies. Before the United States’ official entry into the war, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) operated an immigration station on the island at which alien enemies and noncombatants were detained before repatriation or transport to other facilities. Approximately 7,000 foreign and natural-born enemies were detained on Ellis Island by 1946.

Post-WWII Usage

Immigration laws, such as the Quota Laws of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924, and changing immigration practices reduced immigration and the need for Ellis Island. After World War I, the United States opened embassies and consulates abroad where immigrants could apply for visas and undergo medical inspections. Ellis Island primarily functioned as an INS detention facility after 1924. The INS moved its offices from Ellis Island to Manhattan and the island was closed on November 9, 1954.

President Lyndon B. Johnson incorporated Ellis Island into the National Parks Service as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965. After being open to the public in a limited way from 1976 to 1984, an 8-year, $166 million renovation project funded by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. and the National Parks Service restored the Main Building to its 1918 through 1924 appearance and transformed the space into a museum.

The 1,000-square-foot Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened in 1990. The museum houses self-guided exhibits of clothing, passports, photos, and multimedia displays that document the immigrant experience. The museum also houses the Wall of Honor, which contains over 700,000 names of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. The American Family Immigration History Center opened in 2001 and includes multimedia and printed materials that help visitors to investigate their family immigration history with professional assistance. More than two million visitors tour the museum each year.

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