Welcome to America

The Arrival

The first part of the immigrant’s arrival process was the inspection. For those who arrived in New York, the process would have been similar to this. Medical inspectors boarded incoming ships in the quarantine area at the entrance to the Lower Bay of New York Harbor. Ships were examined from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., and vessels arriving after 5 had to anchor for the night.

Passengers were inspected for possible contagious diseases such as cholera, plague, smallpox, typhoid fever, yellow fever, scarlet fever, measles and diphtheria. Few cabin-class passengers were marked to be sent to Ellis Island for more complete examinations.

When the medical inspectors were finished, the ship would move to the Upper New York Bay and into the harbor, where slowly the tip of Manhattan would come into view. The first object to be seen was the Statue of Liberty.

After the ship docked, steerage passengers poured across the pier to a waiting area. Each wore a name tag with the individual’s manifest number written in large figures. The immigrants were then assembled in groups of 30, according to manifest numbers, and were packed on the top decks of barges while their baggage was piled on the lower decks.

The first American that the immigrants met was an interpreter. The average number of languages spoken by an interpreter was six, but a dozen languages, including dialects, was not uncommon. Interpreters led groups through the main doorway and up a steep stairway into the Registry Room. Though they did not realize it, the immigrants were taking their first test. Doctors stood at the top of the stairs watching for signs of lameness, heavy breathing that might indicate a heart condition, or a gaze that might indicate a mental condition.

Each immigrant was examined by a doctor, with an interpreter at his side, checking the face, hair, neck and hands. The doctor marked immigrants with a large white chalk letter, indicating whether or not they were to be detained for further medical inspection. An X marked high on the front of the right shoulder meant suspected mental defects; an X within a circle meant some definite symptom was detected. B indicated back problems; Pg, pregnancy, Sc, scalp infection, and so on. Marked immigrants were directed to rooms set aside for further examination.

All immigrants were checked closely for trachoma, a contagious eye condition that caused more detainments and deportations than any other ailment. To check for trachoma, the examiner used a buttonhook to turn each immigrant’s eyelids inside out, a procedure remembered by many Ellis Island arrivals as particularly painful and terrifying.

If immigrants had any of the diseases flagged by immigration laws or were too ill or feeble-minded to earn a living, they were deported. Sick children 12 and older were sent back to Europe alone, and those younger had to be accompanied by a parent.

Immigrants who passed their medical exams went to the final test, administered by the “primary line” inspector who had the ship’s manifest and an interpreter. The questioning process was designed to verify the 31 items contained on the manifest. In total, about 20 percent of those arriving at Ellis Island were detained for medical treatment or a legal hearing, the rest were free to go after a few hours. Only two percent of the immigrants failed to be admitted.


The major East Coast Ports of Entry into the United States included New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
-The Port of New York was the largest U.S. Port, but there were more than seventy other federal immigration stations along the shores of the U.S.
-From 1855 to 1890, Castle Garden was America’s first official immigration center.
-Ellis Island opened in 1892, and saw more than 12 million immigrants pass through its gates during its sixty years of operation.
-The Port of Philadelphia saw 1.3 million immigrants pass through. The route took immigrants around Cape May at the foot of New Jersey, into Delaware Bay and up the Delaware River to Philadelphia, adding more than 200 miles to the journey from Europe. The Delaware River often froze during winter, limiting early immigration to warmer months. Between 1880 and 1900, Philadelphia was the port of entry for 5.6% of immigrants, but between 1910 and the advent of WWI in 1914, dropped to 4.8%.