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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

9. Social

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Activities: Context Activities

Coming to America: Immigrants at Ellis Island

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Immigrant Family Looking at Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island

[5005] Anonymous, Immigrant Family Looking at Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island (c. 1930), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-50904].
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Between 1892 and 1954, over twelve million immigrants first touched American soil at Ellis Island. A small island located just south of New York City and within view of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island was the site of the nation's largest immigrant reception center. On one day alone at the height of immigration, Ellis Island processed 11,750 individuals seeking entry into the United States. Despite its title of "reception center," Ellis Island was neither hospitable nor pleasant: immigrants lined up in an enormous hall and underwent intrusive inspections designed to weed out people with infectious diseases or political ideas that were considered dangerous or subversive. But despite the discomfort and bureaucracy, many newcomers were overjoyed to set foot on Ellis Island. In the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, they took to heart the promise chiseled into the base of the statue:

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Many immigrants arrived in America believing that marvelous opportunities awaited them behind the "golden door." In the last half of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of immigrants came from Eastern and Southern Europe--Eastern European Jews made up an especially high percentage of immigrants. They left their homelands to escape persecution, oppression, famine, and poverty. These immigrants brought only the possessions they could carry with them and traveled in "steerage berths" in cramped compartments below the deck of the ship. Some immigrants who could not afford to pay for their passage were brought over as "contract labor." Under this system, businesses that wanted to hire cheap labor could pay the passage of immigrants willing to work for low wages in America. The cost of the workers' fares would then be deducted from their wages once they began working. Contract labor was effectively a form of indentured servitude, but the U.S. government did not make it illegal until 1885 and even then rarely prosecuted companies who engaged in this exploitative practice.

For many immigrants, America was not the Promised Land they had dreamed of. Low wages, long hours, and unhealthy and even dangerous working environments made earning an adequate living almost impossible. Overcrowded tenements and high rents made domestic arrangements difficult and caused problems within families and between neighbors. Many immigrants also had trouble assimilating to the customs and manners of America, or felt resentful about being forced to give up or modify their traditions. When Anzia Yezierska landed at Ellis Island, officials could not pronounce her name. They decided to rename her "Hattie Mayer," which they felt sounded more Anglicized. Yezierska resented this assault on her identity, and when she began to publish, she insisted on using her original, Eastern European name.

Immigrants also endured growing animosity and hostility from native-born Americans, who perceived these "foreigners" as threatening to the cultural and economic status quo. Immigrants' willingness to work for low wages angered native-born Americans who resented competing with them for jobs, and the infusion of new religious and cultural practices caused some nativeborn people to fear that the "purity" of American culture was being assaulted. "Nativism," or the belief that native-born Americans were superior to and needed to be protected from immigrants, created deep divisions between immigrants and other Americans. Anti-Catholic and Anti-Semitic sentiments began to color public discourse.

Nativists frequently scapegoated immigrants, blaming them for the spread of crime and disease. Nativist hostility finally culminated in the passage of congressional bills restricting immigration. The Chinese, in particular, were the target of a specific law designed to forbid their entry into the United States: the Chinese Exclusion Act was adopted in 1882. As a result, the immigrant reception center on Angel Island off the coast of California was even less welcoming than Ellis Island. Many hopeful Chinese immigrants were denied entry and then held in detention centers for months. Poetry written in Chinese covers the walls of the detention centers, parsing out the aspirations, dreams, and despair of the inmates.

Given the difficulties faced by immigrants, it is perhaps not surprising that, according to some estimates, nearly a third of those who arrived in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries eventually returned to their homes in Europe or Asia. But millions of immigrants stayed, and their contributions to American society and culture enriched and transformed the nation.

  1. Comprehension: How were Ellis Island and Angel Island different from one another?

  2. Comprehension: What was "contract labor"?

  3. Comprehension: What is "nativism"?

  4. Context: In the story "Mrs. Spring Fragrance," Sui Sin Far mentions a peripheral character who is being detained at Angel Island. How does this character function in the story? Why does Sui Sin Far include this information about Angel Island in a story about Chinese immigrants who have been living in America for many years?

  5. Context: What kinds of assimilation pressures do the Eastern European immigrant characters in Abraham Cahan's and Anzia Yezierska's stories encounter?

  6. Context: Read the Emma Lazarus poem "The New Colossus" featured in the archive. How does this poem describe America and its relationship to immigrants? What comparison is Lazarus drawing between ancient Greece and nineteenth-century America? What is the significance of personifying America as a woman?

  7. Exploration: Should immigrants be expected to assimilate to American culture? If so, to what extent?

[5004] Underwood & Underwood, Immigrants Just Arrived from Foreign Countries-- Immigrant Building, Ellis Island. New York Harbor (c. 1904),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62- 15539].
People from Eastern and Southern Europe poured into the United States around the turn of the twentieth century. This reception center off New York City processed arriving immigrants and attempted to keep out people with infectious diseases or political ideologies perceived as threatening.

[5005] Anonymous, Immigrant Family Looking at Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island (c. 1930),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-50904].

[5006] Anonymous, Italian Immigrant Family at Ellis Island (c. 1910),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62- 67910].
Between 1880 and 1930, more people immigrated to America from Italy than from any other country. Many of these immigrants settled on New York's Lower East Side. Their lives were the basis for much of the literature of the social realists.

[5092] Lewis Hine, Young Russian Jewess at Ellis Island (1905),
courtesy of George Eastman House.
Millions of immigrants passed through Ellis Island at the turn of the twentieth century. Just off the coast of New York City, immigrants were greeted by the Statue of Liberty, but were also introduced to harsh and often callous immigration policies, which reflected the ambivalence with which the United States welcomed its newest residents.

[8183] Anonymous, The Voyage, No. 8 (c. 1920), reprinted in Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940,
courtesy of the University of Washington Press.
"How has anyone to know that my dwelling place would be a prison?" asks this poem, one of many written on the walls of the Angel Island detention center by Chinese immigrants held there by U.S. authorities. Other examples of these poems can be found in the archive, [8184] through [8191].

[9092] Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus (1883),
courtesy of the U.S. Department of State Web site.
Lazarus's famous poem, which reads in part, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," appears on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, an impressive sight that greeted immigrants as they began the difficult and sometimes degrading task of passing through the Ellis Island immigration facility.

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