Ellis Island opened in 1892 as a federal immigration station, a purpose it served for more than 60 years (it closed in 1954). Millions of newly arrived immigrants passed through the station during that time--in fact, it has been estimated that close to 40 percent of all current U.S. citizens can trace at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island.
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It has been estimated that close to 40 percent of all current U.S. citizens can trace at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island.
When Ellis Island opened, a great change was taking place in immigration to the United States. As arrivals from northern and western Europe--Germany, Ireland, Britain and the Scandinavian countries--slowed, more and more immigrants poured in from southern and eastern Europe. Among this new generation were Jews escaping from political and economic oppression in czarist Russia and eastern Europe (some 484,000 arrived in 1910 alone) and Italians escaping poverty in their country. There were also Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Serbs, Slovaks and Greeks, along with non-Europeans from Syria, Turkey and Armenia. The reasons they left their homes in the Old World included war, drought, famine and religious persecution, and all had hopes for greater opportunity in the New World.
After an arduous sea voyage, many passengers described their first glimpse of New Jersey, while third-class or steerage passengers lugged their possessions onto barges that would take them to Ellis Island. Immigrants were tagged with information from the ship's registry and passed through long lines for medical and legal inspections to determine if they were fit for entry into the United States. From 1900 to 1914--the peak years of Ellis Island's operation--some 5,000 to 10,000 people passed through the immigration station every day. Approximately 80 percent successfully passed through in a matter of hours, but others could be detained for days or weeks. Many immigrants remained in New York, while others traveled by barge to railroad stations in Hoboken or Jersey City, New Jersey, on their way to destinations across the country.
Passage of the Immigrant Quota Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924, which limited the number and nationality of immigrants allowed into the United States, effectively ended the era of mass immigration into New York. From 1925 to its closing in 1954, only 2.3 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island--which was still more than half of all those entering the United States.
Ellis Island opened to the public in 1976. Today, visitors can tour the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in the restored Main Arrivals Hall and trace their ancestors through millions of immigrant arrival records made available to the public in 2001. In this way, Ellis Island remains a central destination for millions of Americans seeking a glimpse into the history of their country, and in many cases, into their own family's story.
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