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In the 19th century, millions of people from all over the world took the decision to immigrate to
the United States, in pursuit of what is called the American Dream: the chance of a new and
better life, new opportunities, and success.
Immigrants arrived by ship, after a long and uncomfortable journey, to the American territory
where they needed to be registered with the Immigration services. Ellis Island, in New York, is
the place where these people were sent once they reached the USA. Up until the 1950s, Ellis
Island was the link between immigrants and their dream of a new life.
Ellis Island opened in 1892, and was used for the control of immigration. It is located in New
York, near the Statue of Liberty, which the immigrants would see from their ship as they arrived:
People immigrated to New York from all over the world, but most especially from Europe :
− Jews who fled oppression from Eastern Europe
− Irish people, who escaped famine and poverty,
− Italians, escaping poverty,
− people from Poland, Greece, Serbia, Hungary or Slovakia, who escaped political and
economical oppression in their countries.
When people arrived at Ellis Island, they had to be registered and examined by doctors and
officials, who decided if they could enter the United States. If most registrations were
successful, some could take a few days. Official numbers say that from 1900 to 1914, 5000 to
10 000 people passed the registration at Ellis Island every day.
If people were allowed to live in the United States, they would settle in New York, or travel to
other cities in the country.
Today, a lot of American people have ancestors who came to America via Ellis Island. Some
famous arrived on the territory by the Island, such as Giacomo Puccini, the famous Italian opera
composer; Harry Houdini, the Hungarian magician; Charlie Chaplin, who was English; Cary
Grant, English actor who worked with Alfred Hitchcock; Sigmund Freud...
At Ellis Island, immigrants had to be patient and go through different procedures to be
registered. They had to be in a good physical condition (especially men, who would need to find
work once they settle in the country), have no mental problems or diseases, and their identities
had to be checked (no criminals were accepted).
If an immigrant was suspected to be ill, he was marked with chalk and had to be examined more
precisely. Doctors were particularly strict with an eye disease called trachoma, which was
contagious; people with trachoma were separated from the others and disqualified from living
in the United States.
Most people succeeded in entering the USA: about 80% of the people were accepted on the
territory every day after only a few hours, and without the need of more controls.
Over the years, the United States passed some laws to regulate immigration, because they were
welcoming thousands of new people every day. Some of the most important laws are:
- The Chinese Exclusion Act, 1982: even though the Chinese population in the US was not high,
this law stopped Chinese immigration for ten years, and made Chinese immigrants ineligible for
naturalization. This legislation got stricter in 1902, where all Chinese immigration was declared
illegal, and this law stayed in place until 1943. This was very effective, as the numbers of
Chinese immigrants declined importantly after the law was passed.
- 1907: a law is passed, that excludes all the people who have mental or physical illnesses.
Children who arrive to Ellis Island without adults are also denied the right to come to the US.
- Literacy test, 1917: new immigrants arriving at Ellis Island need to past a test to show if they
can read and write. The rule was that all immigrants who were over 16 had to be able to read
around 40 words in their native language. If they could not, they were not admitted to the US.
- National Origins Act, 1924: after the first world war, immigration boomed and the new law
established that annual immigration would be limited to 165 000 people, and quotas were
created for certain countries.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression hit the United States. It was an economical crisis, which
caused unemployment to increase and people had to face difficulties in their everyday lives.
From that point, immigration to America slowed down and decreased, less and less people came
through to Ellis Island.
Ellis Island closed in 1954, and today it has become a museum, officially called the Ellis Island
Museum of Immigration. There, people can learn more about the island, about the immigration
process and the history of immigration in the United States. The US are a country formed by
their immigration, from all countries of the world, and Ellis Island represents this diversity.
− journey : voyage
− to be registered : être enregistré
− settle : s'installer
− disease/illness : maladie
− marked with chalk : marqué avec de la craie
− to decline : diminuer
− unemployment : chômage
− increase : augmenter