Ellis Island: Disability and Nationalism in American Immigration History
There is a long history of restricting the entry of immigrants with medical conditions and disabilities into the United States. Disabled immigrants have historically been considered undesirable and a burden on society. This is, however, not a straightforward matter as race, gender, and ability are heavily intertwined, particularly in the context of Ellis Island, immigration laws, and the eugenics movement in the United States. It is worth trying to untangle ideologies, such as the eugenics movement, that supported ableism and to understand how they were put into practice. While studying the various doctrines, laws, and procedures, it becomes clear that the systematic exclusion of disabled immigrants coincided with attempts to define who belonged in America and who did not.
Eugenics: Where Ableism Met Racism
Racism and ableism are interconnected, as demonstrated by the eugenics movement. Charles Davenport, a strong supporter of eugenics, “defined the movement as ‘the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding.’” What this definition hides is that eugenics was, in fact, a component of scientific racism, which tries to claim that certain races are biologically superior to others. Ellis Island’s medical examinations supported the concept of eugenics, considering that “both Ellis Island’s medical inspections and the eugenic efforts to eliminate the ‘unfit’ replicated well-known scientific beliefs in the biological inferiority of some racial groups.” Thus, “undesirable bodies were shaded with attributions of disability; and disabled bodies were ‘raced’ as nonwhite, or as disqualified whites.”Thus, disability was a negative trait that rendered a person automatically inferior.
The combination of ableism and racism was particularly blatant when the Dillingham Immigration Commission, made up of proponents of eugenics, produced a “Dictionary of Races or Peoples,” which they presented as a portion of a 1911 report to Congress. The intent was to classify races, which it did “according to physical and linguistic difference from the Caucasian norm.” Skin color, language, “perceptions of literacy,” and head measurements were all used for classification. The hypothesis that different races had differently shaped heads that revealed how civilized they were was a particularly troubling aspect of early anthropology. This dictionary shows that disability used against a single immigrant “later allowed for the accent of disability to be applied to entire (designated) racial groups.” Thus, undesirable traits could be broadly assigned to unwanted categories of individuals. In fact, the “Dictionary of Races and Peoples” employed such generalizations to define black people as the “lowest division of mankind.” In this climate, it is not shocking that a commissioner of immigration at Ellis Island, William Williams, would resort “to ableist and racial arguments to support his selective immigration policy, stressing deep concerns about the incoming crowds of southeastern Europeans who contained ‘many undesirable and unintelligent people.’” In a sense, “Ellis Island became the key laboratory and operating theater for American eugenics, the scientific racism that can be seen to define a unique era of Western history, the effects of which can still be felt today. These ideas would help shape the legal framework of immigration.
Laws of Exclusion
The eugenics movement’s ableist and racist rhetoric helped shape the laws on immigration, mostly beginning in the late nineteenth century when it was becoming particularly influential. In one of the early laws, passed on March 3, 1891, the newly formed Bureau of Immigration, “in keeping with its strong nationalist values, proclaimed physical medical inspections compulsory for immigrants entering the United States. That same year, the federal government signed into existence Ellis Island, the first processing station for immigrants in the United States.”  Over time laws became more specific about who was not welcome. The Immigration Act of 1907, for instance, was a “statute that expanded the class of deportable chronic disabilities to comprise any impairment likely to make the immigrant reliant on the nation’s socio-economic resources.” The types of conditions considered ranged widely, from varicose veins to mental illness, but people with disabilities were clearly seen as a burden.
The laws only became more restrictive over time. The 1907 edict had a devastating effect as “the percentage of those excluded based on medical criteria increased from 2 percent in 1898 to 57 percent in 1913 and 69 percent in 1915, elevating the dependency rhetoric to the religiosity of a mantra on Ellis Island.” If the interdependence of immigration, ability, and race was not expressed clearly enough, Prescott Hall, writing on behalf of the Immigration Restriction League, clarified his sentiment that white people, preferably those of Nordic descent, should be the only immigrants allowed in as he claimed that the racial unity of America was what mattered. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924 made law out of such views, and “the door essentially shut” for any ‘undesirable’ immigrant. The purpose of such acts can be inferred by the fact that their passing was “celebrated by eugenicists on both sides of the ocean,” including Hitler. It is also telling that “the U.S.-Mexico border patrol was founded on May 28, 1924–three days after the passage of the National Origins Act,” proving that the hidden agenda behind this concern over the health of potential citizens was in fact to exclude nonwhite, disabled immigrants. “Within a year of the 1924 act, the Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island, Henry Curran, reported proudly, though ridiculously, that ‘all immigrants now look exactly like Americans,’” thereby defining the narrow confines of who was considered American. As Jay Dolmage notes in Disabled Upon Arrival, the eugenics movement can also be tied to the Nazi mistreatment and systematic murder of people with disabilities. Therefore, history shows that legal exclusion leads down a slippery slope toward established intolerance.
At Ellis Island, three classes of health conditions were considered unacceptable to entry. Class A covered contagious conditions such as syphilis or leprosy. However, “conditions displayed by ‘insane persons,’ ‘the ignorant representatives of emotional races,’ and the ‘idiots’ or ‘mental defectives’” — in other words people with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities — were also included in this category, and the phrasing implies that certain ethnic groups were more readily assumed to have such conditions. Class B covered conditions not in Class A, but still referred to conditions that would supposedly make people dependant on others. This included a very wide range of conditions, including varicose veins, poor vision, heart defects, arthritis, and dementia.
Lastly, Class C covered unaccompanied pregnant women, who, due to gender biases, were also seen as dependant.Women alone with children were seen as a blight just like people with disabilities, their supposed economic dependency while pregnant compounded by the future dependency of their child. If the mother already fit into an unwanted category, she was doubly undesirable. This mix of conditions outlined in the three classes indicates that any medical problem was considered a possible societal burden. Additionally, such a wide range of conditions could certainly have allowed inspectors to find ways to exclude practically anyone based on their own prejudices.
Ellis Island Inspections
The plethora of conditions disqualifying immigrants was an additional obstacle on their journey through Ellis Island. Here, class came to play a role as well, as the first and second-class passengers of arriving ships were inspected quickly onboard and did not have to even step onto Ellis Island; they were automatically deemed “healthy and implicitly welcome on American soil.” In fact, “even when coming from ports where infectious diseases prevailed,” upper- class passengers were not put through much inspection although steerage passengers from the same ports were quarantined.Even under normal circumstances, steerage passengers went to an inspection line on Ellis Island “where they were examined by a physician and declared healthy and fit, or ‘sick and disabled,’ in which case they were either detained for further investigations or deported.”
Inspectors did not just classify immigrants through these inspections, but they continued to watch them as they moved through the facility. They observed how people climbed the stairs with their luggage for signs that they were ill or disabled, and they would sometimes “stamp cards, and then hand the cards to immigrants. Because the immigrant was curious about what the stamp said, this was an opportunity for further inspection: ‘The way he held [the card] showed if his vision was defective.’” Ellis Island was thus filled with all sorts of small inconspicuous tests that immigrants needed to pass to be allowed entry. As the wide range of deportable conditions would suggest, it took very little to be rejected. For example, as Yehuda Weinstein’s daughter Carol Bierman recounts in a children’s book, Journey to Ellis Island, How my Father Came to America, the young boy lost a finger after he was shot in the hand while escaping Russia with his family during the First World War. The immigration officials at Ellis Island were ready to deport the eleven-year-old just for that reason: they thought that his potentially weakened arm might make him a burden, but after the intervention of a ship’s captain, he was given a more thorough medical inspection and accepted. Even so, as his father had died, it was only because his older brother was already in America and vouched for them that he, his mother, and sister were allowed in. Galusca Roxana summarizes the nature of Ellis Island quite well: “for aspirers to the American dream, the immigration station signified the fear of disease and expulsion. For American citizens, however, Ellis Island confirmed the vitality and attraction worldwide of the American dream, even as it secured national borders against unwanted incomers.”
Explaining the Statistics of Deportation
Based on the wide range of conditions considered unacceptable for entry and the ways in which such conditions were combined with racist ideas, one would think that a great number of immigrants were deported at Ellis Island. However, “historian Amy Fairchild concluded that ‘on average, 4.4 percent of all immigrants were certified [as disabled or diseased] annually from 1909 to 1930, peaking at more than 8.0 percent in 1918 and 1919, but only about 11 percent [of these 8.0 percent] were deported.’” The rate of deportation due to medical reasons was therefore never more than 1 percent. Does this then invalidate the heavy influence of ableist views on immigration? Not really, since “immigration regulations fostered mechanisms to select out of the immigrant stream those individuals most likely to be denied entry.” To clarify, according to American laws, ship captains could be fined if they did not “certify that their passengers were healthy and free of mental and physical defects. Ship companies were also required to return rejected applicants to their home countries at the company’s expense.” This may have been why the captain of the ship the Weinstein family came on intervened on their behalf. Moreover, it is likely that “ticket agents in Europe filtered out the unfit as they, too, were fined by shipping companies if disabled and diseased individuals presented themselves for boarding at the dock.” While the percentage of immigrants deported from Ellis Island may not be an impressive figure in itself, the island was only a last, difficult step in a process designed to weed out undesirable immigrants. In some ways, the low figures are telling as they indicate that very few immigrants that would be unwanted were even allowed to reach Ellis Island.
Ellis Island documents not only a highly visible display of how problematic American discourse on disability shaped immigration policy, but also of the way in which such policy was used to exclude other groups. Prejudices based on gender, class, and race were upheld by assigning ability to desirable groups, such as rich, white men, even as disability was assigned to those of undesirable groups: anyone from outside the confines of western Europe, the poor, as well as unaccompanied mothers, to name a few groups. Consequently, the exclusionary laws and ideologies surrounding the issue of disability helped articulate a very narrow and problematic definition of who was American. This definition, in turn, led to one unwanted trait, race, ability, or gender, being conflated with other unwanted traits, making it hard to separate these prejudices.
While Ellis Island may not be a point of entry for immigrants anymore, the ideologies and laws defined there formed the basis of immigration regulations in the US. The Trump administration’s recently proposed changes to public charge policies, which are what immigration officials use to determine who is likely to become dependent on government support and is thus inadmissible to the country, would make it more difficult for immigrants with disabilities to come into the US. Given the president’s previous statements on immigration, such a change is also concerning because it seems possible this law could be applied more heavily against nonwhite immigrants or along class lines. As such, it is important to question not only what the regulations applied at Ellis Island say about the past, but also how they continue to shape the present.
Lauranne Wolfe is a senior history major at Vassar College. She is currently working on a thesis about disability and migration after World War II.
Bierman, Carol. Journey to Ellis Island: How My Father Came to America. Toronto: Hyperion, 1998.
Dolmage, Jay. Disabled upon Arrival: Eugenics, Immigration, and the Construction of Race and Disability. Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 2018.
Dolmage, Jay. “Disabled Upon Arrival: The Rhetorical Construction of Disability and Race at Ellis Island.” Cultural Critique, no. 77 (2011): 24-69.
Galusca, Roxana. “From Fictive Ability to National Identity: Disability, Medical Inspection, and Public Health Regulations on Ellis Island.” Cultural Critique, no. 72 (2009): 137-63.
Wilson, Daniel J. “‘No Defectives Need Apply:’ Disability and Immigration.” OAH Magazine of History 23, no. 3 (2009): 35-40.
 Dolmage, “Disabled Upon Arrival: The Rhetorical Construction of Disability and Race at Ellis Island,” Cultural Critique, no. 77 (2011), 27.
 Roxana Galusca, “From Fictive Ability to National Identity: Disability, Medical Inspection, and Public Health Regulations on Ellis Island,” Cultural Critique, no. 72 (2009), 144.
 Dolmage, “Disabled Upon Arrival: The Rhetorical Construction of Disability and Race at Ellis Island,” 34.
 Ibid., 40.
 Dolmage, Jay. Disabled upon Arrival: Eugenics, Immigration, and the Construction of Race and Disability, 25. Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 2018.
 Ibid., 27.
 Galusca, “From Fictive Ability to National Identity,” 145.
 Dolmage, “Disabled Upon Arrival: The Rhetorical Construction of Disability and Race at Ellis Island,” Cultural Critique, no. 77 (2011), 27.
 Galusca, “From Fictive Ability to National Identity,” 143.
 Ibid., 151.
 Ibid., 151-152.
 Dolmage, “Disabled Upon Arrival: The Rhetorical Construction of Disability and Race at Ellis Island,” 50.
 Dolmage, Jay. Disabled upon Arrival: Eugenics, Immigration, and the Construction of Race and Disability, 36. Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 2018.
 Dolmage, “Disabled Upon Arrival: The Rhetorical Construction of Disability and Race at Ellis Island,” 51.
 Ibid., 52.
 Galusca, “From Fictive Ability to National Identity,” 149-150.
 Daniel J. Wilson, “’No Defectives Need Apply:’ Disability and Immigration.” OAH Magazine of History 23, no. 3 (2009), 39-40.
 Galusca, “From Fictive Ability to National Identity,” 147-148.
 Ibid., 149.
 Wilson, “No Defectives Need Apply,” 37.
 Dolmage, “Disabled Upon Arrival: The Rhetorical Construction of Disability and Race at Ellis Island,” 31.
 Carol Bierman, Journey to Ellis Island: How My Father Came to America (Toronto: Hyperion, 1998).
 Galusca, “From Fictive Ability to National Identity,” 137.
 Wilson, “No Defectives Need Apply,” 36.
Published on October 29, 2019.