During a visit to Ellis Island earlier this month, I took a photograph from the tuberculosis ward in the island’s long-defunct hospital. Though dilapidated, the hospital remains open for hardhat tours. The plan is to renovate the building so it can be added to the Ellis Island experience. Windows and doors are missing in many places and weather has taken its toll on the exterior and interior. Walking through the ruins, it can be difficult to imagine what the facility was like when it was new. In 1915, when the hospital wing was completed, it was a state-of-the-art facility with 500 beds for immigrants.
There was no cure for tuberculosis at that time. The patient either survived or died. Unlike the other infectious disease wards, where immigrants were grouped by the common disease, immigrants with tuberculosis had single beds. The doors to their rooms were locked from the outside. Whoever was in that room had the same view I did when I took that photograph. If they recovered, they immigrated to the United States. If they did not recover, this was the last view they had.
Ellis Island was the busiest immigration station at the time. Roughly 12 million immigrants were inspected and admitted to the United States through Ellis Island in the 62 years of its operation. First and second-class passengers skipped inspection and were admitted directly into the United States.
Two percent of immigrants were referred to the hospital wing because of perceived mental or physical health issues. 90% of the immigrant patients were ultimately healed and admitted to the United States.
Even with the medical care offered, more than 3,500 immigrants died at the Ellis Island Hospital. Amidst this loss, there was also abundant life——350 babies were born there.
I wasn’t aware until recently that the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital was the first public health hospital in the United States. While care was not free nor subsidized by the United States government, it was state-of-the-art. The main building had about 360 beds and the contagious diseases wards had 450 beds, with eight measles wards and three isolation wards. There were four operating rooms and a morgue.
Here’s where this impacts the present day: somewhere between a quarter and a third of all living Americans are descended from an Ellis Island immigrant. Not from the privileged class—from the working class.
Even those of us who are not descended from Ellis Island immigrants have benefited from the Ellis Island experience. The Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital was one of the most advanced facilities at the time. The training and experience the physicians and nurses received there was used at other hospitals in the United States. The treatments used, the equipment used, and even the design of the hospital was revolutionary. Hospitals throughout the United States benefited from the investment made and the techniques learned at Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital. Ellis Island is in our DNA.
This what it means to be an American, on both sides: as the immigrant first landing in the United States and as the citizen first meeting that immigrant. We have a history of treating immigrants humanely. We have never been perfect, but perfection is not required. Being good neighbors, treating one another with respect, and working to make our nation one where our fellow men and women can thrive is what’s required.
The hospital is an example of us at our best, and we are all better for it. Roughly a century later, we need to remember this experience. As you live and work, try to see your life from the perspective of Ellis Island – and live up to that statue in the harbor.
One of the ways you can take action is to share your immigrant history and push back against the “public charge” rule the Trump administration is trying to implement. Click the following link to learn more about AILA’s #MyImmigrantHistory Campaign.