As I wrote grant proposals for the National Endowment for the Humanities, my research revealed turn-of-the-century articles and cartoons that are echoed today in what we see published in newspapers. Of course, our nation is no longer in the midst of an Industrial Revolution, which fueled its need for immigrant labor at the turn of the 20th century. But the United States's service economy of the early 21st century, combined with a lack of opportunity in other countries, now attracts equally hard-working immigrants willing to fill jobs that many native-born Americans won't do.
With immigration comes familiar tensions. The sign on the door might not read "No Irish Need Apply," but "Orders must be made in English" carries the same message. Though a nation of immigrants, when the melting pot starts to boil over, the last group to come over the border, either legally or illegally, feels the heat.
A century ago, immigrants diagnosed with an illness were detained in the Ellis Island hospital and expected to pay for their medical care. The health of the individual immigrant was secondary, however, to the health of the nation. Concern for the public's health was the primary reason why one of the world's larger, state-of-the-art hospitals was built on two islands adjacent to Ellis Island with the express purpose of serving immigrants. Fear that a less than fit person would become an "LPC" (likely to become a public charge, which was an early 20th century version of a welfare dependent) was cause for any immigrant traveling in third class to be medically inspected. Yet, in spite of more than 30 medical restrictions imposed on these millions of travelers, relatively few were deported. Most of those hospitalized were able to pay for their care or were supported by immigrant aid societies; nine out of 10 became citizens.
One hundred million Americans alive today can trace their roots to Ellis Island. As for the nation's health, no epidemic was ever traced to any immigrant group. During its three decades of operation, the Ellis Island hospital accomplished its mission. John Henry Wilberding, who had measles when he passed through the hospital on his way from Germany, told me in an on-camera interview about the hospital: "Here was a place that rescued you, that made you feel good that you were still being cared for and in a strange place thousands of miles away."
Lorie Conway, a 1994 Nieman Fellow who makes films for her company, Boston Film and Video Productions, is producing "Fear & Fever on Ellis Island," the first film and book about the Ellis Island immigrant hospital. It will be broadcast on PBS, with a shorter version to be shown in the Ellis Island museum. Smithsonian Books will publish the film's companion book.
"An enduring commonwealth must of necessity guard rigidly the health of its citizens and protect itself against undesirable additions from without .... It can be truthfully said that the dregs and off-scouring of foreign lands, the undesirables of whom their own nations are only too eager to purge themselves, come in hosts to our shores. The policy of those advocating free immigration would make this country in effect the dumping ground of the world."
— William Williams, two-term Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island who helped persuade Congress to expand the list of 17 medical exclusions to include varicose veins and a catch-all condition called "poor physique."
This cartoon, circa 1902, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
"We cannot have too much immigration of the right kind, and we should have none at all of the wrong kind. The need is to devise some system by which undesirable immigrants shall be kept out entirely, while desirable immigrants are properly distributed throughout the country." — President Theodore Roosevelt's response to the spike in immigration in 1907 when a record number of one million immigrants landed at Ellis Island. This cartoon, circa 1907, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
During its three decades serving as a hospital for Ellis Island immigrants, 350 babies were born. Many were named after the doctors and nurses who helped deliver them. Along with conducting classes in nutrition, public health nurses also taught new mothers about personal hygiene and well-baby care. For older children who were hospitalized, Red Cross volunteers read them books from the hospital library, enabling many to learn English by the time they left Ellis Island. Photo courtesy of the United States Public Health Services.
After her clothes were fumigated, a newly arrived immigrant at Ellis Island has her hair examined for lice by a public health nurse. This examination was part of a medical inspection imposed on all third-class passengers who traveled to America during the great wave of immigration at the turn of the 20th century. Photo courtesy of the United States Public Health Services.
When I first started looking at historic photographs of an abandoned Ellis Island hospital, immigration was barely in the news. That was more than eight years ago, when I was beginning my work on a documentary film and book about the history behind these photos.1 Now, news and commentary about immigration is impossible to escape. Whether the topic is illegal entry or cheap labor or public health — and similar arguments about each issue have been voiced by waves of immigration opponents through the years — America's new arrivals rarely have failed to inspire dire predictions.