Janus' Home


journey across the ocean and get a decent meal, families and lovers could reunite after long separations, and job connections could be made for a new start in America. Tied closely to these sentiments, and more present in the minds of the immigrants as they made their way through the main building, was fear. "They shut you up in the 'Kestlegartel' [Castle Garden, the previous immigration station, which was often confused with Ellis Island], they take off all your clothes and examine your eyes," went a typical story at home in Europe. "If your eyes are healthy, it's all right. If they aren't, they make you go back to where you came from."8 Every immigrant had to pass a two minute medical exam in order to be admitted, and while only two percent were ever turned away, all dreaded the possibility of being detained or sent home.9 The physical environment in which the medical examinations took place was intimidating, as well. Before 1911, the floor of the Great Hall where most of the examination process took place contained bars to keep lines orderly and wire mesh cages to separate immigrants who did not pass the initial health inspection. To many, the bars and cages resembled cattle pens and stalls, and the uniformed Public Health Service officials looked for all the world like soldiers.10 Combined with the swift medical exam, the overtaxed nerves of the U.S. Immigration Department workers, and the disorientation of being ordered around in and surrounded by a cacophony of languages, it is easy to imagine how frightening a place Ellis Island could be.

The island symbolizes much of the controversy which surrounded immigration laws from the 1920s through the 1950s. The First and Second Quota Laws, enacted in 1921 and 1924 respectively, sharply restricted the number of immigrants allowed to enter from each country, favored emigrants from northern European rather than southern European countries, and

8. Sholom Aleichem as quoted in Georges Perec and Robert Bober, Ellis Island, trans. Harry Matthews and Jessica Blatt (New York: New Press, 1995), 22.
9. Ibid.
10. Brownstone et al., Island of Hope, Island of Tears.
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