Nostalgic treatments of open borders in the United States often reference Ellis Island, an immigration checkpoint through which millions of people from Europe, Africa, and Asia entered the United States from 1892 to 1954 (immigrants from Latin America generally entered via land and did not need to go through a checkpoint). With the exception of a few laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the US had virtually open borders until the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, followed by the more comprehensively restrictive Immigration Act of 1924. In this blog post, I explore a few aspects of the immigration processing at Ellis Island, and compare them with how things are today. This post can be thought of as loosely related to, but not quite part of, the series started by my co-blogger Chris Hendrix.
Then versus now alert
Many things have changed between then and now. Open borders today would be a far more radical proposal than it was back in the era of Ellis Island, just in terms of the number of people who would likely move around. Falling transportation and communication costs, as well as a higher-than-ever place premium, are the obvious culprits. For these reasons, this blog post should not be interpreted as an attempt to sentimentally use a historical analogy of limited scope to sneak in an open borders conclusion, but simply an examination of the kinds of concerns that people had back then.
Some critics of open borders would be quick to point out that migration to the United States in the beginning of the 20th century was largely migration of “whites” from Europe, whereas open borders today would entail huge amounts of migration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It is true that the de facto levels and proportion of migration from these continents would be much more today than in the 20th century. But I haven’t found any evidence that, apart from the Chinese Exclusion Act (which Chris argues was a terrible idea in hindsight) there was any large-scale attempt to block immigration, de jure or de facto, from any other nationality (until the Acts of 1921 and 1924). There was some immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean (and of course unchecked immigration from Latin America, but that wasn’t through Ellis Island). A couple of people have made related points suggesting there may have been some level of discrimination based on nationality:
- People of Asian ethnicity and appearance were probably discriminated against. Anti-Chinese prejudice was a special case of a somewhat larger phenomenon of anti-Asian prejudice, and though only the former manifested itself in law, the latter may have had some effect on the ground.
- In his post about Thomas Sowell, Alex Nowrasteh talked about the Dillingam Commission. Officers at the immigration checkpoints may well have been influenced by the findings of these commissions, and this may have influenced their decision of whom to admit and whom not to admit.
With all that said, the overall rejection rate at Ellis Island was estimated as being around 2%. This means that even the worst discriminated against nationalities are unlikely to have had a huge rejection rate. Incidentally, this rejection rate earned Ellis Island the nickname of “Heartbreak Island” (more on that later).
How did Ellis Island process potential immigrants?
Here are two quotes from the Wikipedia page:
Generally, those immigrants who were approved spent from two to five hours at Ellis Island. Arrivals were asked 29 questions including name, occupation, and the amount of money carried. It was important to the American government that the new arrivals could support themselves and have money to get started. The average the government wanted the immigrants to have was between 18 and 25 dollars. Those with visible health problems or diseases were sent home or held in the island’s hospital facilities for long periods of time. More than three thousand would-be immigrants died on Ellis Island while being held in the hospital facilities. Some unskilled workers were rejected because they were considered “likely to become a public charge”. About 2 percent were denied admission to the U.S. and sent back to their countries of origin for reasons such as having a chronic contagious disease, criminal background, or insanity. Ellis Island was sometimes known as “The Island of Tears” or “Heartbreak Island” because of those 2% who were not admitted after the long transatlantic voyage. The Kissing Post is a wooden column outside the Registry Room, where new arrivals were greeted by their relatives and friends, typically with tears, hugs and kisses.
The trickiest part appears to have been the medical inspections:
To support the activities of the United States Bureau of Immigration, the United States Public Health Service operated an extensive medical service at the immigrant station, called U.S. Marine Hospital Number 43, more widely known as the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital. It was the largest marine hospital in the nation. The medical division, which was active both in the hospital and the Great Hall, was staffed by uniformed military surgeons. They are best known for the role they played during the line inspection, in which they employed unusual techniques such as the use of the buttonhook to examine aliens for signs of eye diseases (particularly, trachoma) and the use of a chalk mark code. Symbols were chalked on the clothing of potentially sick immigrants following the six-second medical examination. The doctors would look at the immigrants as they climbed the stairs from the baggage area to the Great Hall. Immigrants’ behavior would be studied for difficulties in getting up the staircase. Some immigrants entered the country only by surreptitiously wiping the chalk marks off, or by turning their clothes inside out.
Alex Nowrasteh sent me a link to a book chapter by Claudia Goldin where she writes (speculatively):
Because the shipping companies that brought immigrants across the ocean were responsible for the return voyage of any who did not meet U.S. immigration standards, it is likely that these companies would have administered a literacy test of their own, in the same way that they screened for health violations in European ports.
A few things that struck me:
- In a sense, it’s telling that a rejection rate of about 2% earned the island the nickname of “Heartbreak Island.” Today, the rejection rate for first-time applications is about 15-20%, and the rejection rate considering repeated applications is about 10-15% (see here and here). One might also argue that there is more pre-screening today than in the past: people who don’t have the appropriate authorization documents don’t even get to the stage where they apply for a visa, because the system won’t accept their application, and the application fee deters frivolous applications. On the other hand, having to pay for a voyage and actually undertake it is also pretty strong pre-screening for desire to move. Further, the quote above suggests that shipping companies did some pre-screening of their own, though the extent of that is unclear.
- It can also be argued that immigration law today can be just as strict as that at Ellis Island while being far less cruel. In the days of Ellis Island, a person had to endure a long and expensive journey in cramped conditions and then got to “apply for a visa” so to speak. Today, people can apply for visas to consulates in their home countries. Possibly, with more open borders, consulate capacity would need to be expanded, or outsourced (and the higher costs of this expansion could be met through increased fees on immigrants). But at any rate, in so far as the process of rejection happens before the immigrant books the plane, bus, or ship ticket, this is less cruel on the immigrant.
- It’s also interesting that, even in this era where a federal welfare state, and state-level welfare states, were practically non-existent, immigration authorities were concerned about the ability of potential immigrants to fend for themselves and not become “public charges” — however, we need to keep in mind that poverty was a lot worse overall, so there were serious concerns about immigrants overstretching private charitable resources when a lot of natives were in desperate need of these. It’s notable, though, that very little money was charged of the immigrants. [ETA: I had originally written that no money was charged of the immigrants, but this seems to be factually incorrect. The Immigration Act of 1882 set a head tax of 50 cents on all entering immigrants, which was increased in stages to 8 dollars by 1917. It’s not clear if this tax was charged of all immigrants.]They were simply required to demonstrate that they possessed some money; it wasn’t taken from them: “The average the government wanted the immigrants to have was between 18 and 25 dollars.” According to this website, $25 in 1900 dollars would be somewhere between $583 and $18,300 in today’s dollars, and the simple CPI calculation would put it at $691, and the actual “head tax” would, under the same CPI calculation, come to about $200. I think the relevant figure for our purpose is a CPI-type value, so this is not a demanding requirement]. Presumably, the goal was that there should be enough money for them to move around in search of jobs and places to live. Today, most people who migrate temporarily or permanently already have their first job or place to live lined up for them. Reading some restrictionist critiques of that era, it seems one of the chief (and valid) concerns of restrictionists was that the immigrants would essentially stay stuck near the port of arrival because they didn’t have the funds or knowledge to look for jobs elsewhere in the country — so a requirement to demonstrate some funds probably went a long way here.
- The medical inspections procedure feels demeaning, but in another sense it is probably one of the fastest and most efficient ways of handling a large number of immigrants. The rough idea: quick physical inspection to identify people who might need a more thorough inspection, then follow up with more detailed inspection for those people marked for more inspection. This was also a time and era where there was much more serious danger of infection and much fewer resources and techniques to combat such infections. In today’s world, it’s possible to have far more reliable screening for diseases at possibly a somewhat higher cost, without being demeaning or imposing much uncertainty on migrants.