Between 1892 and 1954, more than 12 million people entered the United States at Ellis Island, a small island off the New Jersey coast. During the height of the immigration wave of the early 1900s, inspectors interviewed as many as 500 people a day, a process that could take up to seven hours. But contrary to a persistent myth, the agents very rarely changed the spelling of foreign names. The Encyclopedia of Ellis Island states that the employees of steamship companies -- usually overseas ticket agents who didn’t require formal identification from passengers -- wrote down the passenger names that were provided to them. Immigration inspectors at Ellis Island merely checked the names on the ship’s manifest against what the passengers told them, and only made changes if a newly-arrived immigrant insisted there was an error.
Immigration screening back in the day:
- On 17 April 1907, a record number of almost 12,000 immigrants were processed, according to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.
- Historian Philip Sutton of the New York Public Library said that many immigrants changed their names themselves, sometimes to make them sound more American. “If anything, Ellis Island officials were known to correct mistakes in passenger lists,” he said.
- Inspectors at Ellis Island also asked a series of 30 questions to screen out troublemakers, loafers, and the physically and mentally impaired. They also wanted to know where people would be living once they entered the United States.