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This Day in History: Ellis Island releases its last immigrant

On this day in 1954, Ellis Island releases its last immigrant. The island’s immigration center had been in operation since 1892.

Did you know that the federal government wasn’t always in charge of immigration? For many years, the states performed this task. By the end of the 1800s, however, more and more immigrants were coming into the country. Congress approved the Immigration Act of 1891, making immigration a federal responsibility.

The first immigration station on Ellis Island. It was destroyed by a fire on June 15, 1897, and a new center had to be built.

The federal government created many immigration centers in places like Boston and Philadelphia, but one particular center in New York would soon capture the public imagination. That center was created where an old fort had once stood. It was on Ellis Island, near the Statute of Liberty. It opened its doors on January 1, 1892.

Immigration numbers were initially relatively low, but these numbers quickly increased. At their peak, more than 1 million immigrants were processed in a single year! Perhaps unsurprisingly, the facilities on the island were expanded many times. Eventually, the island housed a Main Building, several hospital buildings, a psychopathic ward, a kitchen, and a laundry. About 500 employees worked on the island, including inspectors, interpreters, and medical workers.

When an immigrant arrived at Ellis Island, United States officials checked his medical condition and his paperwork. Would that person be a “public charge” to the country? A person who might be a burden on public welfare was not allowed into the country. People with certain diseases could be refused admission. Despite these restrictions, only about 2 percent of all immigrants were turned away. The average, healthy immigrant was released from Ellis Island in 3 to 5 hours, assuming their papers were in order.

Over time, the United States became a world power with embassies all over the world. Many emigrating functions began to occur overseas, before immigrants ever arrived on our shores. Congress also began to place limits on the numbers of immigrants who could enter our nation. Ellis Island was being used less and less. Eventually, its primary use was for detention and deportation of people trying to enter without the appropriate paperwork.

On November 12, 1954, the last immigrant left the island. Arne Peterssen, a Norwegian merchant shipman who had overstayed his shore leave, was released and paroled home to Norway. The island was closed down, and it fell into disrepair until it was finally incorporated into the Statue of Liberty monument under the National Park Service.

Today, of course, the facilities on the island have been restored, and they are open to visitors.

Primary Sources & Further Reading:

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