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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

January 4, 2017: Ellis Island Studying: The Questions

[On January 1, 1892, Ellis Island immigration station opened in New York Harbor. Nearly 500,000 immigrants came through the station in its first year, and the rest is history. Very complex history, though, and so for Ellis’s 125th anniversary I’ll analyze five contexts for the station and the immigration stories to which it connects. Leading up to a special weekend post on 21st century immigration!]
On three examples of particularly complex and telling types of questions on the list of 29 that (as I wrote on Monday) were asked of immigrant arrivals to Ellis Island.
1)      Communities: After the basic informational kinds of questions (although some, like “What is your race?,” weren’t quite as simple as they appear), the next group focused on the national and family communities from which arrivals came and which they might be joining here in the U.S. To my mind, one of the most seemingly straightforward questions from this group was also complex and telling: “Who paid for your passage?” Fears of the importation of forced laborers had driven immigration policy since at least California’s controversial 1862 Anti-Coolie Act, and this question could be linked to those concerns. Yet as I’ll highlight in item two, many turn of the 20th century anti-immigrant narratives focused on nefarious international groups such as “anarchists,” and the question likewise implied that such groups might be financing immigrants sympathetic to their cause. In any case, despite being located between two more factual questions (“What is your final destination in America?” and “How much money do you have with you?”), this one was at least far more loaded.
2)      Threats: Some questions, like “Who paid for your passage?,” implicitly sought to determine if an immigrant might pose a danger to his or her new communities. Some, like the ridiculously overt two-parter “Are you a polygamist? Are you an anarchist?” (yes, those two comprised one of the 29 questions), did so very very explicitly; it’s difficult for me to imagine anyone knowing enough to be aware of those terms’ meanings answering this question in the affirmative. But to my mind the most complex and troubling of this type was another multi-parter: “Have you been in a prison, almshouse, or institution for the care of the insane?” Both convicted criminals (especially political prisoners) and the demonstrably “insane” had been excluded from immigrating since the first national immigration law, 1875’s Page Act, so those designations, while frustratingly slippery and malleable, weren’t new. But asking about those who had stayed in an almshouse—those who had experienced desperate poverty, that is—did represent an addition to these categories; or, to be exact, did link social class and status to crime and mental health in overt and even more frustratingly exclusionary ways.
3)      Civics: If you made it through these other groups of questions, the last and largest group (comprising 11 of the 29 questions) focused on questions about American history and government: “Who was the first President of America?” [BEN: Not sure anyone has occupied that position, but I’m gonna go with either Simón Bolívar or Beyoncé], “What is the 4th of July?,” “Who signs bills into law?,” and so on. While some of these questions help us understand the natonal self-image Ellis Island sought to create (especially “Which President freed the slaves?”), I’m more interested in the existence and centrality of this category overall. It makes sense that for someone to become a U.S. citizen, he or she has to pass a test featuring such historical and civic topics; but that’s after more than a decade in the country, not upon first arrival to it. (Granted, the citizenship test is far more extensive than was Ellis’ civics portion, but the principle is the same.) Can and should we have expected that newcomers would know these details? I can see both sides of that debate, but in any case this group of questions clearly connects to broader turn of the 20th century narratives of the need to “Americanize” new immigrants as quickly and fully as possible.
Next IslandStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Ellis Island responses or contexts?

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