The big ship is coming into the harbor. There are gay
crowds on the wharf. There are smartly dressed women waving handkerchiefs
and parasols, and men are flourishing canes and hats. Lined against the
rails on the decks of the ship are tourists in all costumes. Three
thousand miles they have sailed across the sea. Those who have come back
to their native land look with longing eyes, and those who are strangers
with wondering. The home-comers search in the crowds on the pier for the
faces of loved ones, and cheery greetings are exchanged as the ship is
being warped in by the busy tugs.
She is rubbing against the buffers now. The gangplanks
are down. The tourists are streaming forth like an army of ants. Men and
women are throwing themselves into one another's arms. Stevedores are
driving in and out from the bowels of the leviathan, bringing to light
steamer trunks, big chests, casks, boxes, bundles and bales of all sorts
and sizes, which are being sorted rapidly, tapped and opened by keen-eyed
and keen-witted customs inspectors.
On the lowermost deck, staring with wide-open eyes from
behind the cordage netting, and peering from the portholes of the sea
monster, taking in each detail of this jumble of debarkation, this festive
homecoming, are the immigrants. It is their first contact with this new
world, this land of freedom of which they have dreamed, but which is still
so far away from them.
Then come the ominous-looking barges, filling many with
the terrifying thought that they are to be deported, and then the trip
across the harbor again to the bare walls of Ellis Island--half castle,
half prison--A glimpse of tall buildings on the receding shore, a passing
of ships flying the flags of all nations, and this America of fabulous
story seems to fade from their view.
This great America that is
so free is an anomaly to the immigrant who has just landed here. The
stories that have been carried to him across the sea are like the
folk-lore tales told to the children--a great deal of tinsel and fairy
godmother. He expects a golden sunrise, but his ideals are shattered.
Uncle Sam's inspectors are probers for prosaic facts. At every stopping
place the immigrant is met by an interrogation point. He begins by being
cautious. He finishes by losing his head and becoming wildly incoherent
At Ellis Island, within
whose detaining confines linger ninety per cent of the new-comers to the
United States, the scenes of thousands of comedies and tragedies of all
nations are enacted each time the ships come in. There were closed to a
million of these comedies and tragedies last year. There will be close to
a million of them this year. One hundred ships a month--ships whose
steerages are loaded to the utmost capacity--one thousand, fifteen
hundred, sometimes more--ply between New-York and foreign ports.
From within the vast,
black depths of these ships pour the men, the women and the children who
are cast in the roles of these life dramas. On each apparently trivial
query hangs their future fate as in a balance. Drilled on the other side
as to the answers they shall make, cautioned against admitting this or
denying that, imbued with the importance, first of all, of creating the
impression that they are disease-free and self-sustaining, they meet all
questions with a parry. Equivocation, hesitation, out-and-out lying, are
the stumbling blocks that beset the paths of the inspectors.
In one of the temporary
detention departments is an Irish Girl. She clings with her hands to the
wire network, and presses her face close against it. A frightened look is
in her eyes as she peers through the interstices at the men in blue
uniforms and brass buttons, hurrying back and forth in the passageways,
now stopping at other immigrants with the frightened looks, and putting to
them quick, pointed interrogations.
One stops in front of the
Irish girl. "What is your name?" he asks abruptly.
The girl stammers, "My name
is Mary Watson, sir."
"How old are you, Mary?"
She hesitates. She is
trying to recall the catechism in which she was so thoroughly drilled
before she left the old home, and which she repeated so often to herself
on the lonely voyage between the decks of the big steamer. She knew it
well then. It has gone from her now. The inspector--to her imagination,
some high and powerful official in this bewildering new land--is waiting.
"How old are you, Mary?"
"I don't know, sir,"
replies the girl in helpless confusion, forgetting her lessons.
"What is your age?"
persists the inspector.
"Oh, I am twenty-one,
sir," she says, as she finally comprehends the man's meaning.
"Are you married or
She blushes. "Oh, I am single, sir!"
"Where were you born?"
There is another
hesitation, and another vain attempt to recall the categorical,
suppositive and hypothetical questions and answers. The inspector is
looking at her coldly and searchingly. He must be answered.
"Oh, sir, I was born in
Ireland, sir," she says.
"Where are you going?"
"I am going to America,
"To what city, to what
town in America?"
" I am going to New-York,
"To what address?"
The girl stares blankly at
"To what place in
New-York, to what street?"
"Oh, sir. I am going to
No. -- South Halsted-st., Chicago."
"Are you going to New-York
"I am going to New-York,
"Give me your address in
"No. --South Halsted-st.,
"Then you are going to
"Yes sir; I am going to
"How much money have you?"
Here is one of the
dangerous points impressed upon her in the catechism.
"Ten pounds, sir," she
"Show it to me."
"It's in my clothes,
sir--in my bag."
"You'll have to show it."
"Sure, I haven't got ten
pounds, sir. I have five pounds, sir."
"You'll have to let me see
"Sure, I spent most of it
for expenses, sir. Sorry little have I left, sir."
"How much have you left?"
"Eleven shillings, sir,"
and she shows them.
A Hebrew is stopped in
front of the desk of an inspector.
"Have you any money?" asks
the inspector in Yiddish.
"Yes, yes; I have money, I
have plenty of money," is the answer.
"How much money have you?"
"Oh, I have plenty of
money, plenty, plenty."
"Yes, but I must know; you
must show it to me."
"I can't show it to you;
it is too far down in my pack."
"How much is in your pack?
I must know."
"Ah! I have one hundred
"You will have to show
them to me."
"I haven't one hundred
rubles. I have only forty copecks."
Before the Board of
Special Inquiry--that awful tribunal to detained aliens--stands Yousef
Elfehiel, a Syrian from Belgravia. He stands with uncovered head, showing
a shocky growth of black hair. His shoulders are bent forward. Every
action betokens submission. He gazes in bewilderment at the three
inspectors seated behind the long, stationary desk.
"What induced you to come
to the United States?" asks one of the solemn judges.
An interpreter slowly
propounds the query to him in the Arabic tongue.
"In view of the fact that
my cousin is here, I risked coming in the hope of finding work," is the
The Secretary of the
Commissioner looks at the applicant's hands.
"He has the hands of a
workingman," says the Secretary.
Then, turning to the
inspector, he says, "Ask him: "' Was there not any work on the other
"There was work," is the
answer. Then, with a sign, the man adds, "But still, maybe, that is my
"What do you mean by that
remark?" queries the Secretary.
"I mean," says the Syrian,
and there is sadness in his tone, "that maybe I am predestined to come to
this country--I don't know."
"Did your cousin state
that he had work prepared for you?" asks an inspector.
"What reason have you for
thinking that you are predestined to come to the United States?" asks the
"Because God has commanded
that," says the Syrian with fervor.
"What else has God
commanded you to do?"
"This is one of the things
that has been ordered by God. I have noticed nothing else."
"Have you ever been to
"Or committed a crime in
"No. Be it forbidden that
God should order such a thing!"
The unexpected answer
brings a suspicion with it. Men have before claimed divine commands to
commit dangerous deeds; so the Secretary asks pointedly:
"Is this the only command
of God that you have received?"
The Syrian bows his head,
and says softly:
"It would seem to be so."
For a moment there is
silence in the board-room. Then the fate of this comer to the New World is
"Admitted," is the
And the busy routine is
resumed. It is only a passing incident. There are hundreds--yes,
thousands, of such incidents at Ellis Island.
Three steamboats carrying
three hundred passengers each, and three barges with a capacity of nine
hundred each, convey the aliens to Ellis Island. They are packed on these
boats as they are packed on the ship that brings them over. When they are
landed on the dock on one side of the slip they are marched in procession
into the big building, which, with its brick walls, its stone-flagged
floors, its iron and stone stairways and its wire cages, is gloomy and
As the new-comers pass up
the broad stairs leading to the first story, they are stopped at the top
of the landing one by one by an inspector who is on the medical staff. Now
and then some impetuous immigrant tries to hurry on into one of the narrow
alleys that are guarded on the sides by tall and stout wire nettings and
lead off into straight lines across the great, open room occupying nearly
the entire floor; but he is quickly stopped by a muscular arm.
"Hold on!" cries the
inspector, and holding his captive in a strong grasp he rapidly runs his
fingers through the mat-like hair of the foreigner. He is looking for
"Go on," he says, and as
the man advances, the examiner watches the movement of his feet with a
critical eye, searching for defects of the extremities.
The next moment he has
another immigrant in hand, and then another and another, performing his
work accurately and so rapidly that one can hardly follow his movements.
Still, the crowds are coming up the stairs and pouring on through the
ling, wire lanes in a seemingly endless stream. The nimble fingers of the
inspector comb each head of the shocky hair; his eyes note each strange
gait. The procession still unwinds itself as if from a great ball of yarn.
Three thousand, four thousand, five thousand, six thousand in one
day--that is the record.
It is a motley procession
is this thread of immigration. Old men and young men carrying big canvas
satchels and bags half the size of a trunk, stuffed to the bursting point;
tottering old women with handkerchiefs on their heads, some in bare feet,
some in felt slippers, some in boots, bending low beneath the burden or
unwieldy bundles; young women, some with lines in their faces, like the
old women, some with rosy cheeks, some leading little children by the
hands and nursing others at the breast; young girls, some with hope, some
with sorrow; young boys, some sturdy and bright, some weak and stupid--all
wild-eyed, scared, confused--such is the procession that straggles up from
the sea to Ellis Island.
There is a mixing of the
nations within the compass of these somber walls--an international
congress of world types. The army of picturesque dummies in one of the
exhibitions could obtain new recruits fro this sartorial array from all
lands and zones.
Onward they pass from
doctor to doctor. And then come the Registry Division and the questions of
the inspectors. After that there is a visit to the Money Exchange, where
the immigrant's foreign coin is transformed so rapidly into the
circulating medium of the United States, of whose value he knows nothing,
that he cannot tell whether he has become a pauper or a millionaire. And
then he passed sown the stairway that leads out to the ferry-boats and the
railroads and the New World. With a tag stamped "O.K." on his breast, he
takes his first step toward liberty, mingling with the thousands of other
aliens in the big apartment, dazed, hesitating and wondering what is going
to happen next.
But what of the alien who
fails to pass the inspectors?
To all intents and
purposes the one who is detained temporarily is as good as admitted; but
he does not understand that. In nearly all cases he is detained for his
own protection; until friends arrive, or until he receives money and
directions where to go.
The situation of those who
are excluded from the country is entirely different. In this case the men
and women are separated in rooms in the basement. In these rooms may be
seen all types of humanity.
An Italian brigand is
standing in the corner dressed in the coarse clothing of his country
gloomy and silent. There are other Italians not far away conversing in low
tones to one another. They are held for violation of the contract labor
law. There are Hebrews who are suspected of being unable to support
themselves and thus becoming public charges. Hollow-eyed and solemn, with
ragged toes and his bare clothes peeping out from shoes that scarcely hold
together, is a Hindu, John Magnam. You will find his name on the record,
and if you care to investigate you will learn that he came over as a
helper with a ship-load of animals, was abandoned by those who brought him
here, and deported as a pauper.
There, just on the other
side of the room, is an old Russian with his old wife and middle-aged
daughter who is not strong nor over-bright. The man is senile, the woman
not capable of self-support, and there is but one course--deportation. A
decrepit Scandinavian peers out of eyes that can hardly see. At the other
end of the room is an old Englishman. He has the bearing and appearance of
one upon whom prosperity formerly smiled. Now his clothing is ragged. "No
visible means of support" is the record against his name on the books. In
the women's apartment is an Irish woman with six children. She, too, with
her brood, must go back.
But let us leave these
unfortunate ones whose long journey across the sea has resulted only in a
glimpse at the Statue of Liberty and the tall buildings of the metropolis.
At the ferry on Ellis
Island is an eager, expectant crowd of relatives and friends waiting to
greet those from the other side. They stand in front of the wire netting
that pursues the alien down to the water's edge that leads to his new
home. There are exclamations of joy when the gates are opened. There are
quick embraces--there is no time for extended ones, for the ferry-boat is
Mothers and sons, sisters
and brothers, cousins, friends, sweethearts, are reunited, and in those
few seconds of joy the long years of sorrow and separation are forgotten.
The trip across the harbor
this time is one of joyfulness. But there still are others waiting at the
Battery to receive these seekers for new homes and new fortunes and bid
them God-speed. Each time that the ships re in you may know it by the
throngs of all nations that gather there. They wait for hours upon this
threshold of America. Then the ferry-boat steams up to the pier, and there
are tears of joy and smiles and warm welcomes in all tongues when the last
gates to the New World are thrown open wide.