Over 40% of the American population can trace their ancestry to immigrants at Ellis Island. Immigrants from all over the world funneled through Ellis Island, many leaving famished countries, oppression and civil war. They endured months of weary travel and were often separated from their families for years, all in an attempt to find the “good life” in America.
As exhausted and frightened immigrants arrived at Ellis Island, they were rounded up and put through a quick health exam, which amounted to little more than a physician watching them walk up a flight of stairs (known as the Stairs of Separation) to the Great Hall, where they would be processed. Immigrants knew that in order to gain entry to the United States, they needed to be disease-free and prove they had the ability to earn a living; however, wealthy immigrants were automatically given entry to the U.S. They were also asked dozens of questions such as their name, occupation, how much money they had and where they were going. Those with any sign of illness or any other ’suspicious’ traits (usually about 10% of new arrivals) were detained for further inspection. About 2% were simply turned back.
Once the immigrants passed the inspections, they descended the stairs and were often met by friends and family they hadn’t seen in years. Since these emotional reunions usually took place at the base of the staircase, this spot became known as the Kissing Post. The newly-processed immigrants then collected their baggage and exchanged their money for U.S. currency. They could also purchase railroad tickets if they needed to travel to another destination in America. Generally, immigrants who were granted entry to America spent 3-5 hours at Ellis Island.
Since most immigrants arrived poor, they often remained in New York and lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where rents for the crowded, often unsanitary apartment buildings, called tenements, were low. They also gravitated toward ethnic neighborhoods where they could find some solace being among people from their own country. Many laborers worked in hazardous conditions for very low wages – but despite it all, very few immigrants chose to return home.