As I mentioned in my previous post, when most people today think of immigration history they envision the “Ellis Island experience”–the huddled masses from Europe entering New York harbor (waving at the Statue of Liberty on those old news reels) and then being processed in long lines at the INS transfer station. That whole system came about as a result of the Immigration Act of 1891 (26 Stat. 1084). This statute was a revision of the Immigration Act of 1882 (see my previous post) which established formal inspections for all foreign passengers arriving at U.S. ports. The Act of 1891 transformed immigration procedures by making the Federal government solely responsible to examine, admit, or reject immigrants. (Remember, under the Act of 1882, examinations were conducted by state officials working under the jurisdiction of the Customs Service). To facilitate federal oversight, the Act of 1891 established the Office of the Superintendent of Immigration, which eventually became the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in 1933. The Act also authorized the creation of processing stations to examine immigrants before they were legally admitted to the U.S. (thus removing the inspection process from on board the vessels). Ellis Island, of course, became the largest and most famous of these new immigration centers.
The main focus of the inspections continued to be the weeding out of undesirables (convicted felons, the insane, or anyone who would not be able to support themselves financially). Questions under the INS system became even more detailed as a consequence, until by the 1920s the manifests included two full pages. (Some of our favorite questions are those that asked passengers if they were a polygamist, an anarchist, or advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government–so far, we haven’t found any immigrant who ever admitted to such behavior!) INS passenger manifests date from 1891 to the late 1950s and are readily available on microfilm (later records under 50 years old are still partially restricted due to privacy concerns and require a FOIA request to search).