There is a great scene in The Godfather: Part II when the young Vito Corleone walks through the Great Hall on Ellis Island, waiting in line to be processed by the immigration officer.
He is scared, alone, and surrounded by many other immigrants wanting to enter to America.
It is an evocative sequence of that time and place in history and speaks volumes without saying too much. This is what was like back then. Thousands and thousands of immigrants patiently standing, hoping for the chance of a better life.
Ellis Island was that final obstacle, the ‘gateway to America’. As the largest and most active immigration station, from the time it opened on January 1, 1892, and by the time it closed on November 12, 1954, 12 million immigrants had passed the gates of Ellis Island and entered the States.
At its peak, it processed an average of over 5,000 immigrants per day, the all-time high being 11,747 on April 17, 1907.
However, getting into the United States wasn’t that easy. And the ambivalent attitude that the Americans held towards immigrants was an additional barrier. The government had a number of regulations and procedures that needed to be passed in order to gain approval.
They were subjected to rigorous medical and physical inspections, especially the immigrants who traveled in second or third class. Those who were wealthier were treated more lightly. The methods that the officials used, such as the symbols that were put on the clothing of the potentially sick or suspicious immigrants, would today be considered inhumane and prejudiced.
The reviews were conducted by representatives of the United States Public Health Service. And their primary concern was diseases like cholera, tuberculosis, and trachoma, which they didn’t have a cure for at the time.
And because of the huge number of arrivals on a daily basis, a place was needed where they could transfer those with serious health problems or pathogens.
For all the immigrants who didn’t pass the check-up, a medical detention facility was built on the southern side of Ellis Island. Constructed in phases and built on rock and dirt excavated from the construction of the city’s subway system, the hospital opened in 1902.
It was the United States’ first and largest public health institution at the time. The entire complex counted 29 structures, composed of both a general hospital and separate buildings for the contagious disease wards.