Proud To Live in America
Home Government Agencies Supporters Women's Issues American Life Testimonials

click here to read more editorials: MLK - Ellis Island - Pedro Zapeta - Lou Dobbs - Social Media - Eliot Spitzer  - St. Patrick  - 2008 Elections - John Kennedy - Economy 2008 - Race and Gender  - Financial Crisis 09 - Change - Goldman Sachs - Ponzi Scheme



Italian Immigrants Called Ellis Island The Island of Tears 

"And high up above my eyes could clearly see, the Statue of liberty, sailing away to sea" Paul Simon  "American Tune" 1973


When most of us living in the United States think of Ellis Island, we generally get a lump in our throats and a sentimental feeling.  Romantic visions of our forefathers coming to this great country in search of a better life fill our hearts and minds. The inscription on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” makes us proud to live in a country that with open arms, embraced immigrants from less fortunate countries. One great nation made up of many different people.


As you read this, you are probably nodding your head in agreement and possibly wiping a tear from your eye. Stop right there. Let’s take a realistic look at the “glory days” of immigration and Ellis Island.


Before Ellis Island’s opening in 1892, immigrants from across the Atlantic Ocean were admitted through Castle Gardens, a fortress at the southern tip of Manhattan in New York City.  Prior to Congress passing the Immigration Act of 1882, individual states were in charge of immigration rather than the Federal Government. The lack of a formal Federal immigration policy created a situation where immigrants were easily robbed, cheated and abused.


At this time, Liberty Island was being considered as the entry point to accommodate the processing of immigrants. Anti-immigration groups denounced this idea claiming they did not want the island where the Statue of Liberty resided to be “polluted” by the teaming masses of unwashed and unwanted immigrants.


Between 1815 and 1880, most immigrants to the United States had come from England, Ireland, Germany and Northern and Eastern Europe. These immigrants shared similar religious views and physical appearances and believed themselves to be well educated.


Around the 1880's, a new wave of immigrants began coming to America.  These groups originated from Southern Europe and were predominantly Italian.  From 1880 to 1924, 4.5 million Italians, (almost one third of Italy’s entire population) immigrated to the United States.  Southern European immigrants were mostly uneducated peasants who practiced Catholicism.  Their dark hair and skin color made them easily identifiable.


These Italian immigrants called Ellis Island “L’ Isola delle Lacrime”, the Island of Tears.  This term was used to describe their treatment upon arrival to Ellis Island. Who can forget the scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s famous movie “The Godfather”, where young Don Vito is given the name of his village as his surname.  Families were separated and sent back to their countries of origin for various reasons.  Quarantine inspectors and medical doctors performed what became know as the “six second exam” to determine if immigrants were allowed into our country. During this process, immigrants were tagged with numbers and chalk was used to mark their clothing with letters. These letters were abbreviations for various physical and mental conditions (“L” for lameness, “S” for senility and so forth). Mental deficiency was considered to be a reason for deportation.  Questions like “When you wash stairs, do you start at the top or the bottom” were used to determine the mental condition of an individual. Despite claims to the contrary, many immigrants’ sir names were changed or misspelled. If an immigrant was lucky enough to pass the scrutiny of Ellis Island’s staff, they were disinfected with bleach and sent on their way. 3,500 immigrants died at Ellis Island while waiting to be processed.


It did not take immigrants long to learn that the streets were not “paved with gold”.  Many lived in tenements, with up to 20 people in a room. They were cheated by their landlords, worked 14 hour days and had little time to learn English. This inability to speak English made life more difficult than the assimilation problems that Irish immigrants faced in the middle 1800’s.


The Irish potato famine in 1846 resulted in mass immigration from Ireland. Irish immigrants who arrived during the Civil War were required to serve in the military in order to become citizens. Though not 100% accurate, Martin Scorsese’s film, “Gangs of New York”, illustrates the hardships Irish immigrants had to endure.


In 1891, the largest mass lynching in United States history took place in New Orleans.  After a court of law had found 11 Italian immigrants not guilty of the murder of a police commissioner, angry locals took the law into their own hands and lynched 11 innocent people.  During this time, immigrants were often stereotyped as violent, gang members or anarchist supporters.



The National Origins Act of 1924 was mostly directed at Southern European immigrants and limited Italian immigration to approximately 5,500 people per year.


During World Was II, Italian, German and Asian immigrants were prohibited from speaking their native language, ordered to carry ID cards or were arrested and detained under the Alien Registration Act. Japanese and Asian immigrants usually immigrated to the USA through Star Island off the coast of California.


Though World War II brought about countless injustices for immigrants, it was also a turning point. Soldiers who were immigrants or the sons of immigrants returned home after the war to find a new attitude that embraced them as true citizens of the United States. 


In 1954, the official closing of Ellis Island marked the end of legal mass immigration to the United States.


If you think this information is critical of United States immigration policies and practices you are mistaken. It is meant to show that despite the problems that immigrants have always faced, our great country has always eventually assimilated and embraced its new arrivals. The United States’ ability to do this has made us what we are today. A democracy consisting of many cultures, blended together to become the United States of America.


Advertise with UsContact UsFeedbackDisclaimerPrivacy Policy
Copyright © 2006 Proud To Live In America Inc. All rights reserved.