Just in time for the celebration of our nation's Independence Day, I was able to visit Ellis Island in New York for the first time. Exploring the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, which is located in the building where more than 12 million immigrants were first processed upon arrival to the United States from 1892 to 1924, was a humbling experience. I will not soon forget it.
In those days, Ellis Island served as the chief gateway for our nation's immigrants. Immigration was primarily driven by economics, and most immigrants arrived from Europe on crowded ships expecting to find work and fulfill the American dream. Today more than 100 million Americans can trace their ancestry to relatives who passed through the island.
Many of the policies first created for Ellis Island exist to this day in some form. Potential immigrants continue to be excluded on the basis of certain health issues, criminal history, and likelihood of becoming a "public charge" - becoming dependent on our government for financial support. Today a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident "sponsor" is required for most intending immigrants. The sponsor must agree to support the intending immigrant for a certain time period at a level of 125% of the federal poverty guidelines. Back in the early days of immigration through Ellis Island, immigrants were simply required to have at least $25 in their possession upon arrival to avoid a finding that they may become a public charge. It is reported that many immigration officers did not bother to verify that an immigrant actually had the money, but took his word for it.
One policy that (thankfully) is no longer in place required all women immigrating through Ellis Island to be accompanied by a close male relative - generally a husband, father, or brother. An unaccompanied woman was either returned to her home country, held on the island until a male relative could come and collect her, or married right on the island, before she could be released. The island turned into a very popular location for marriage proposals and makeshift weddings!