When I first started looking at historic photographs of an abandoned Ellis Island hospital, immigration was barely in the news. That was more than eight years ago, when I was beginning my work on a documentary film and book about the history behind these photos.1 Now, news and commentary about immigration is impossible to escape. Whether the topic is illegal entry or cheap labor or public health — and similar arguments about each issue have been voiced by waves of immigration opponents through the years — America’s new arrivals rarely have failed to inspire dire predictions.
As I wrote grant proposals for the National Endowment for the Humanities, my research revealed turn-of-the-century articles and cartoons that are echoed today in what we see published in newspapers. Of course, our nation is no longer in the midst of an Industrial Revolution, which fueled its need for immigrant labor at the turn of the 20th century. But the United States’s service economy of the early 21st century, combined with a lack of opportunity in other countries, now attracts equally hard-working immigrants willing to fill jobs that many native-born Americans won’t do.
With immigration comes familiar tensions. The sign on the door might not read “No Irish Need Apply,” but “Orders must be made in English” carries the same message. Though a nation of immigrants, when the melting pot starts to boil over, the last group to come over the border, either legally or illegally, feels the heat.
Conway was given exclusive access to film the abandoned medical complex — 22 buildings on two islands adjacent to Ellis Island. She also interviewed five former patients (two have since died) about their experiences in the hospital. Her film, which received three National Endowment for the Humanities grants, will premiere at an event on Ellis Island in either the fall of 2007 or early in 2008. A century ago, immigrants diagnosed with an illness were detained in the Ellis Island hospital and expected to pay for their medical care. The health of the individual immigrant was secondary, however, to the health of the nation. Concern for the public’s health was the primary reason why one of the world’s larger, state-of-the-art hospitals was built on two islands adjacent to Ellis Island with the express purpose of serving immigrants. Fear that a less than fit person would become an “LPC” (likely to become a public charge, which was an early 20th century version of a welfare dependent) was cause for any immigrant traveling in third class to be medically inspected. Yet, in spite of more than 30 medical restrictions imposed on these millions of travelers, relatively few were deported. Most of those hospitalized were able to pay for their care or were supported by immigrant aid societies; nine out of 10 became citizens.
One hundred million Americans alive today can trace their roots to Ellis Island. As for the nation’s health, no epidemic was ever traced to any immigrant group. During its three decades of operation, the Ellis Island hospital accomplished its mission. John Henry Wilberding, who had measles when he passed through the hospital on his way from Germany, told me in an on-camera interview about the hospital: “Here was a place that rescued you, that made you feel good that you were still being cared for and in a strange place thousands of miles away.”
Lorie Conway, a 1994 Nieman Fellow who makes films for her company, Boston Film and Video Productions, is producing “Fear & Fever on Ellis Island,” the first film and book about the Ellis Island immigrant hospital. It will be broadcast on PBS, with a shorter version to be shown in the Ellis Island museum. Smithsonian Books will publish the film’s companion book.