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Border Control in America before Ellis Island

By Hidetaka Hirota


On the seventeenth of April 1907, 11,747 immigrants arrived in the Ellis Island landing station in New York, marking a record high in terms of the number of people processed on a single day at the station, where 17 million newcomers landed between 1892 and 1954. This arrival was part of a broader landmark immigration wave. In 1907, the United States received 1,285,349 immigrants, and this annual entry remained largest in the nation’s history until 1990.

For the majority of immigrants, Ellis Island was a gateway to a new American life. The station also represented a bitter reality that the door to America was firmly closed to many. By 1907, the federal government had developed a series of laws to regulate the quality of newcomers who would join American society. Immigrants of undesirable character such as prostitutes, criminals, paupers, persons “likely to become a public charge,” people with physical and mental defects, and people with contagious diseases were not permitted to land. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and subsequent legislation, had also suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers. As the nation’s major point of entry, Ellis Island played a central role in the implementation of federal immigration law. Upon the arrival of immigrants, federal inspectors interrogated them, examined their medical conditions, and ordered the return of those deemed excludable to their countries of origin. Those who seemed to require additional inspection were detained.

While Ellis Island is now widely recognized as a historical icon of the American immigration experience, some important questions remain to be addressed. Where did federal immigration regulation law come from? How was immigration to the United States regulated prior to Ellis Island? What was the relationship between earlier practices of immigration control and federal regulatory policy that developed from the late nineteenth century onward?

Some of the roots of federal immigration control can be traced back to passenger laws in Atlantic seaboard states. Since the 18th century, coastal states adopted policies for preventing the landing of destitute Europeans. Upon the arrival of a steamship, state or local officials examined the condition of passengers, and sent back to the other side of the Atlantic those who were likely to become public charges in America unless the shipmaster provided a certain amount of bond money for their landing.

PERSPECTIVE VIEW (NORTHWEST) OF MAIN GATE – Castle Clinton, Battery Park, New York. Historic American Buildings Survey Collection. Library of Congress.

Among coastal states, New York and Massachusetts pursued this kind of exclusion policy successfully. In 1855, New York established an immigration depot at Castle Garden, an old fort in lower Manhattan. At this state-level predecessor for Ellis Island, the New York Commissioners of Emigration inspected arriving passengers. If paupers or criminals were found, the officials wrote, “they are detained” and “measures may be taken to cause their return to the port of embarkation.” In addition to admission regulation, Massachusetts developed policies for deporting foreign paupers already in the state in response to the influx of the famine-stricken Irish in the mid-19th century.

State-level immigration control was developed into national policy in the early 1880s. When the US Supreme Court struck down state passenger law in 1876 for infringing upon Congress’s authority over foreign commerce, immigration officials in New York and Massachusetts organized an interstate campaign to establish national immigration legislation. The result of the campaign was the Immigration Act of 1882. Enacted three months after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the act was modeled on preexisting immigration policies in New York and Massachusetts and prohibited the landing of criminals, paupers, and lunatics with a deportation provision for criminals. This act, together with the Chinese Exclusion Act, laid the foundations of federal immigration control.

The introduction of the federal Immigration Act of 1882 didn’t signify the end of states’ involvement in immigration control. Since the federal government had neither the administrative capacity nor the experience in passenger regulation to enforce the law, the 1882 act left the implementation of its provisions, such as inspecting passengers’ conditions and excluding undesirable foreigners, to state officials. Thus, federal immigration control started as a state-federal joint endeavor.

State officials’ participation in federal policy continued even after 1891, when the nationalization of immigration regulation was technically completed. In March 1891, Congress passed a new immigration act that replaced state enforcers with federal employees. The passage of the act was followed by the construction of the federally operated Ellis Island landing station. Yet again, without trained staff of its own, the federal government ended up hiring state workers at Castle Garden for the administration of Ellis Island. Similarly, in Massachusetts, state officials were employed as US officers to implement the 1891 act.

U.S. inspectors examining eyes of immigrants, Ellis Island, New York Harbor. Miscellaneous Items in High Demand. Library of Congress.

State officials’ enduring involvement not only helped consolidate federal control in its formative period but also shaped the way federal law was implemented. One of the characteristics of federal control that developed in the following decades was immigration officers’ virtually unqualified power over exclusion and deportation decisions. The vague construction of the “likely to become a public charge” clause allowed officials to apply exclusion to a wide range of people. Deportations could be processed based on unlawful arrest and informal evidence. In short, federal immigration control was loose at best and to a great extent subject to the discretion of immigration officials.

Precedents for this aspect of federal control are found in the practices of state officials prior to 1882. The New York Commissioners of Emigration, for example, routinely detained and returned destitute immigrants at their discretion without giving ship masters the option to provide bonds. In antebellum Massachusetts, Irish paupers were deported often illegally without required court warrants by state officials who were desperate to remove “an ignorant and vicious Irish Catholic population” or “leeches upon our tax payers.” These state-level approaches to undesirable foreigners were integrated into national policy through the 1882 act’s state-federal joint administration and state officials’ continuous presence after the passage of the 1891 act.

It is beyond dispute that racism against Asians and Mexicans immensely influenced the development of modern American immigration policy. Yet American immigration restriction also stemmed from earlier practices and mindsets against destitute Europeans established in northeastern seaboard states long before Ellis Island. Border control, then, is a tradition deeply rooted in the American immigration experience.

Hidetaka Hirota is Postdoctoral Fellow of History at Boston College. He is the author of “The Moment of Transition: State Officials, the Federal Government, and the Formation of American Immigration Policy” in the Journal of American History (March 2013), which won the 2012 Organization of American Historians Louis Pelzer Memorial Award.

The Journal of American History is the leading scholarly publication and the journal of record in the field of American history. Published quarterly in March, June, September, and December, the Journal continues its nine-decade-long career presenting original articles on American history. Each volume of the Journal features a variety of pieces that deal with every aspect of American history, including state-of-the-field essays, broadly inclusive book reviews, and reviews of films, museum exhibitions, and Web sites.

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