Immigrant Experience

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					Ellis Island: The Immigrants’ Experience

“We were in that big room on those benches, just sitting and waiting, waiting to go
through the examination.” Ursula Koropic Ruppe, Slovenian Immigrant, 1921

“Every so often somebody called out names of immigrants to be questioned. I was so
nervous because it was so noisy.... [I] was afraid I would miss mine and remain there
forever.” William Chase, Russian Immigrant, 1914

Over 100 million American men, women, and children can trace their heritage to the
arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island n New York harbor between 1892 and 1954, the
years it acted as a processing center. Located in the shallow waters of the harbor, the
island had served as a Dutch oyster fishing site in the seventeenth century and a place for
the public hanging of pirates in the eighteenth century. At the end of the eighteenth
century a New York merchant, Samuel Ellis, purchased it, giving his name to the site.
During the War of 1812 it was fortified and later accommodated a naval powder
magazine. Uninhabited in the late nineteenth century, it had come into the possession of
the U.S. government and seemed a logical site for a new station to process the
increasingly larger numbers of immigrants arriving into the country annually.

An 1890 law authorized $75,000 to remove the old powder magazine and another
$75,000 to ―improve said Ellis Island for immigration purposes‖ (4). Preparations
included dredging and enlarging a channel 1,250 feet long and 200 feet wide,
constructing new docks to receive barges delivering immigrants, expanding the island
with landfill, and 860 feet of cribwork to hold the landfill in place.

The depot opened in 1892 at a cost of $500,000. Made of pine, it was destroyed by fire in
1897 and was replaced by a fireproof building in 1900. Makeshift arrangements on the
island sufficed until then. The new building was constructed of brick and limestone and
stood three stories high with a large central section and two stout wings on each side. It
lasted until Ellis Island closed in 1954. In the late 1980s, on the heels of the hundredth
anniversary of the U.S. acceptance of the Statue of Liberty, refurbishment of Ellis Island
took place. It reopened in 1990 as a museum to all immigrants to America (6). The
historical significance of this island is inestimable. On one day, 17 April 1907, the
humanity flooding Ellis Island climbed to 11,747. Between 1900 and 1920, 14.5 million
immigrants entered the nation through this point of entry.

Overview

Immigrants endured an ocean voyage from eight to more than twenty days—generally in
cramped, unhealthful steerage—making their arrival at Ellis Island a victory of sorts over
the conditions of passage. Some wore tags of identification stating their ultimate point of
U.S. destination. All had passports and other papers detailing information about
themselves. Second- and third-class passengers were usually processed and on their way
before those in steerage. Many of the new arrivals were young adults clutching the hands
of children and carrying babies. Most had all their earthly possessions in a ―bundle‖ (a
makeshift sack or blanket) or a suitcase. Few expected ever to return to their homelands.
Their reasons for coming to the United States were as varied as the people themselves.

Having secured passage from places such as Hamburg or Liverpool, immigrants usually
booked one-way passage with the expectation of staying. If they were detained or forced
to return by authorities at Ellis Island, steamboat companies bore the expense. The
percentage of returnees was about 2 percent, or sometimes up to one thousand a month.
Detainees with medical problems were chalk-marked ―E‖ for eyes, ―L‖ for lameness, or
―X‖ for mental disability. If not sent back, detainees sometimes remained quarantined for
days or weeks at Ellis before moving on to their American destinations.

Upon disembarking, immigrants were directed toward a large building where they
immediately entered the gigantic, sixty-foot high Registry Room. Here they underwent a
quick medical exam followed by a review of their traveling papers and some legal
questions, such as age? destination? employment? Most cleared this process in five hours
and left for their ultimate destination the same day. Those who were detained were
suspected of trachoma, a highly contagious eye disease causing blindness, or ―loathsome
and contagious‖ diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, or favus, a scalp and nail fungus.
These people went upstairs to the second floor for closer examination by trained medical
personnel from the U.S. Public Health Service (10). Breathing difficulties, lameness, or
abnormal posture could be observed on stairways by observant health care workers.

The medical facilities included a 275-bed hospital, contagious disease wards for 450, X-
ray facilities, laboratories, and a morgue. Between 1900 and 1954, 355 births and 3,500
deaths (1,400 of them of children) were recorded. In 1924 alone the record showed nearly
fifty surgical procedures performed monthly.

Once past medical inspection, immigrants joined one of many lines to answer remaining
questions. Here in the span of about two minutes inspectors decided whether to admit the
immigrants into the United States. It was not unusual for inspectors to work twelve-hour
shifts during the peak immigration period from early spring to late fall. Sometimes
immigrants without sufficient money would have to wait for the arrival of a relative or
funds before leaving, but generally five days was the maximum stay at Ellis Island.
Additionally, circumstances prompted boards of inquiry to ascertain why some
immigrants were migrating and to determine whether they should be detained or
deported. Alerts about criminals wanted in other countries, suspicion of contract laborers,
or simply the fear that extremely poor people would become public charges were
common.

The processing experience seemed inhumane at times because of the sheer numbers, but
most of the commissioners in charge tried to move the people through as quickly as the
ever-tightening immigration laws allowed. Beginning with legislation in 1924, more
processing took place at the point of departure, making the job less tedious for American
inspectors. For the approximate 20 percent who failed immediate clearance and required
detention, fourteen dormitories organized by gender were equipped with canvas or wire
mesh mattresses for sleeping. The dormitories accommodated up to fifty people and lined
the balcony overlooking the registry room. A large dining room served meals on a
continual basis to both those passing through and those detained. Over twenty years the
island grew to become a miniature city where a staff of seven hundred doctors, nurses,
interpreters, matrons, clerks, maintenance workers, and night guards worked up to
twelve-hour days, seven days a week. Groups such as the YMCA, Red Cross, and
Salvation Army assisted by serving coffee and donuts, providing used clothing, and
helping find lost luggage, wandering children, and mainland relatives. Holidays were
observed with special events such as parties produced by the welfare groups.

Ellis Island served as a transition place for thousands of immigrants. Marking the division
between their past and their unknown future, processing at Ellis Island was an experience
few ever forgot. Once the experience was complete, a barge took new arrivals to Battery
Park at the tip of Manhattan where they were met by relatives, directed to sites within the
city, or sent to train stations to connect with points throughout the United States. While
many lived out the remainder of their days in New York, many others went to
Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and other cities. Thousands more headed for the
farmlands of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Procedure

1. In order to organize the simulation of Ellis Island, it is necessary that a series of pre-
   planned activities occur, for student role playing is really the culminating activity.
   Students must examine their own family history, and if possible they choose a family
   ancestor who migrated to the U.S. between 1892 and 1924, the peak immigration
   years at Ellis Island. Developing a family tree with the help of parents and relatives
   can be helpful in choosing someone to role play.

   For students who are not able to find a relative, choose one of the nations listed below
   and ―create‖ your a character who might have arrived in the U.S. at the turn of the
   century. Nations from which to choose include:

      Germany
      Ireland
      Poland
      Russia
      Italy
      Portugal
      Hungary
      Spain
      Rumania
      Greece
      France
      Austria
      Montenegro/Bosnia/Serbia
      Holland/Belgium/Luxembourg
      Czech/Bohemia/Slavic
      Norway/Sweden/Denmark
2. Once you have determine the role you will play during the simulation, research the
   ―homeland‖ and become familiar with your role by finding as much information
   about their experiences as possible (see Document 1). You should determine:

     Age
     Gender
     Lifestyle
     Family
     Education
     Language –
     Occupation
     U.S. Destination
     Reason for immigrating to America

3. You are required to create your own passport (Document 2) using cardboard about
   four-by-six inches that includes vital information such as your photograph and a
   thumb print. Copies of the ―papers‖ you are expected to have are attached herein
   (Documents 3 and 4) and must be filled out based upon researched information and
   personal creativity. These should be completed by the simulation day. In addition,
   there is a list of vocabulary words you should familiarize yourself with which is
   included herein, as well.

4. On the day of the simulation, you must arrive in your own costumes and with your
   own luggage, either a bundle or a suitcase. You should pack essential and typical
   items that an immigrant would have taken on their journey. NO LIVE ANIMALS or
   ANYTHING REMOTELY SIMILAR OR YOU WILL BE DEPORTED AT THE
   START OF CLASS. You are encouraged to look through old family albums or use
   internet sources for ideas on dress etc. Generally, women wore long skirts, blouses,
   shawls, and scarves on their heads or shoulders while men wore bedraggled pants or
   knickers, collarless shirts, plain jackets, and caps. Luggage should contain what
   students consider their characters’ most cherished possessions from their homeland.
   Most had a few changes of clothing and rolled cherished items up in a blanket, burlap
   bag, or knapsack or placed their things in an old-fashioned suitcase or carpetbag. Be
   sure you have money, as there was a required amount immigrants needed to have in
   order to be admitted into the U.S.. Be sure to find out what that amount is by
   researching it. There will be a money exchange for U.S. currency when you arrive to
   Ellis Island.

5. Language: You cannot speak English during the immigration because you didn’t
   know English, only a few basic words can be spoken at best. To accurately portray
   your character, you are encouraged to research simple words from the language of the
   nationality you will represent so that you may speak from the native tongue. If you
   cannot communicate the word in your native language, prepare to use sign language.
   You must also write your passport in a foreign language, as well.

6. You may use the Ellis Island site http://www.ellisisland.org/ as source of information
   or to research the family member you will portray. You may arrive on a generic ship
   name as identified by your instructor or, if you can locate your family member on the
   ship manifest, you may identify their ship to keep the project as authentic as possible.
   Should you decide to arrive on the ship of your ancestor, please print the ship
   manifest so that we may add it to our books.

7. You will need to know your destination after your arrival and processing at Ellis
   Island. Where will you live and how are you getting there? This should be
   historically accurate based on your family of origin.

8. You must know the reason that your family member immigrated to America. This
   may require additional research as to the causes of immigration from your country of
   origin. To simply say your ancestor immigrated for a better life will not suffice. You
   will need to research what was happening politically, economically, or otherwise that
   led immigrants to leave their native lands and immigrate to America. Document
   1
 Sample Immigrants

Olga Parkowski
 You come from a small town in Poland where you have been earning
your living as a seamstress. You are forty-two, u nmarried, and hoping to make more
money in America. An American company paid for your passage to New York. You have
only fifty-five Polish zlotys with you. You have been in poor health; you often cough.
You know that relatives of yours died of tuberculosis. You hope to reside in New York
City.

Mario Rossini
 You come from the island of Sicily where you worked in olive groves
and wine orchards for starvation wages. You have three children and a wife whom you
hope to bring over to America after you have found a good paying job. You expect to
connect with an uncle who has been working at a mill in Massachusetts for ten years
where you hope also to get a job. It has taken you a year to scrape together enough
money to pay your passage to New York, and your uncle has sent a train ticket for your
trip north once you arrive.
                         Document 3
 Character Chart

1.    I am a/an...(immigrant in 19__).
2.    My name is:

3.    Religion:
4.    Date of Birth:

5.    Age:

6.    Place of birth:
7.    These are the members of my immediate family: 

         a. Father:
         b. Mother:

         c. Sister(s): 

         d. Brother(s):
8. I have the following disabilities:
9. I am leaving...to live in America because of (war, famine,
    persecution, etc.).
       Explain:
10. Money in my country is measured in...
11. The amount of that currency I am bringing to America is...
12. In my country I work as a/an...
13. In my country I do not work because...
14. When I reach America I have (a sponsor, a relative, a
     friend, someone to employ me, no one to employ me,
     etc.). 

     Explain:
             Document 4
 United States of America
 Declaration of Intention

State of:


District of:


In the District Court of the United States

I_____________________age _______Occupation________,do declare on oath that my
personal description is:

Color:

Complexion:

Height: _________Feet________Inches

Weight: _________ pounds

Hair Color:

Eye Color:

Other visible distinctive marks...

I was born in_______________on the ___________day of ____________anno Domini.

I now live at:

         State:

         Route:

         City/Town:

I emigrated to the United States of America from __________________ 
 on the vessel
____________________; my foreign residence
was______________________________;


I am ____________married; the name of my spouse is___________________;
 he/she
was born at _________________and now resides at___________________.

It is my bona fide intention to renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign
prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, and particularly to_____________________of
whom I am now subject.

I arrived at the port of_____________________________state
of_____________________________, on or about the________of_______________,
anno Domini____________.

I am not an anarchist; I am not a polygamist nor a believer in the practice of polygamy;
and it is my intention in good faith to become a citizen of the United States of America
and to permanently reside there SO HELP ME GOD.

Signed and sworn to before me in the office of the Clerk at...this...day of...anno Domini
1900.

                        Jay Wood Clark,
 Clerk of the District Court of the United States

                                       By: ______________________________

                                       (your signature)
                                    Vocabulary Sheet

Americanization: Programs which fostered American patriotism while teaching the
English language and American government.

Assimilation: The process of being absorbed into the cultural traditions of a population
or group.

Bundle: A group of items rolled up together for convenient handling.

Deportation: The removal from a country of an alien whose presence is unlawful.

Detention: The keeping of an alien for a specified period because of illness, lack of
money, background check, etc.

Emigration: The process of leaving one’s country for residence elsewhere.

Ghetto: Originally, a section of a city restricted to Jews; eventually came to mean any
section of a city where members of a national or racial group live or are restricted.

Immigration: The process of coming into a country of which one is not a native or
permanent resident.

Literacy Test: An examination of a person’s ability to read or write.

Manifest: A list of passengers on a ship.

Mutual Aid Societies: Organizations that provided communal support and solidarity for
nationalities in times of sorrow and need.

Naturalization: The process by which a person is admitted to citizenship of a particular
country.

Passport: A document issued by an official of a country to a citizen; necessary to enter
or leave a country.

Pluralism: The condition of a society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial,
religious, or social groups maintain an autonomous participation in developing their
particular culture.

Polyglot: Literally, many-tongued; word often applied to the diversity of languages
spoken in American cities during the height of immigration.

Prepaid Ticket: A ticket purchased in the U.S. by an immigrant and sent home to a
relative or friend for ship passage. ($20.00 was the expense to the U.S. from Hamburg,
Germany.)

Pull Factors: Incentives for moving to a new country, such as opportunities for
economic improvement and advancement, prospect of political and religious freedom.

Push Factors: Incentives for leaving one’s homeland, such as European population
explosions (1800-1900), changes in landholding and farming patterns that forced
peasants off land, religious and political repression.

Steerage: The section in a ship for passengers paying the lowest fares and given inferior
accommodations.

				
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