Americans encouraged relatively free and open immigration during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and did not question that policy until the late 1800s. After certain states passed immigration laws following the Civil War, the Supreme Court in 1875 declared that regulation of immigration is a Federal responsibility. Thus, as the number of immigrants rose in the 1880s and economic conditions in some areas worsened, Congress began to issue immigration legislation. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Alien Contract Labor laws of 1885 and 1887 prohibited certain laborers from immigrating to the United States. The more general Immigration Act of 1882 levied a head tax of fifty cents on each immigrant and blocked (or excluded) the entry of idiots, lunatics, convicts, and persons likely to become a public charge. These national immigration laws created the need for a Federal enforcement agency.
In the 1880s, state boards or commissions enforced immigration law with direction from U.S. Treasury Department officials. At the Federal level, U.S. Customs Collectors at each port of entry collected the head tax from immigrants while “Chinese Inspectors” enforced the Chinese Exclusion Act. Congress soon expanded the list of excludable classes, and in doing so made regulation of immigration more complex. As a result, when the Immigration Act of 1891 barred polygamists, persons convicted of crimes of moral turpitude, and those suffering loathsome or contagious diseases from immigrating, it also created the Office of the Superintendent of Immigration. Located within the Treasury Department, the Superintendent oversaw a new corps of U.S. Immigrant Inspectors stationed at the United States’ principal ports of entry.
Under the 1891 law, the Federal Government assumed the task of inspecting, admitting, rejecting, and processing all immigrants seeking admission to the United States. The Immigration Service’s first task was to collect arrival manifests (passenger lists) from each incoming ship, a responsibility of the Customs Service since 1820. Enforcing immigration law was a new Federal function, and the 1890s witnessed the Immigration Service’s first attempts to implement national immigration policy.
Operations began in New York Harbor at a new Federal immigration station on Ellis Island, which opened January 2, 1892. The largest and busiest station for decades, Ellis Island housed inspection facilities, hearing and detention rooms, hospitals, cafeterias, administrative offices, railroad ticket offices, and representatives of many immigrant aid societies. Ellis Island station also employed 119 of the Immigration Service’s entire staff of 180 in 1893. The Service continued building additional immigrant stations at other principal ports of entry through the early twentieth century. At New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and other traditional ports of entry, the Immigration Service hired many Immigrant Inspectors who previously worked for state agencies. At other ports, both old and new, the Service built an Inspector corps by hiring former Customs Inspectors and Chinese Inspectors, and training recruits. An “immigrant fund” created from collection of immigrants’ head tax financed the Immigration Service until 1909, when Congress replaced the fund with an annual appropriation.
During its first decade at Ellis Island and other ports, the Immigration Service formalized basic immigration procedures. Inspectors questioned arrivals about their admissibility and noted their admission or rejection on manifest records. Detention Guards and Matrons cared for those people detained pending decisions in their cases or, if the decision was negative, awaiting deportation. Inspectors also served on Boards of Special Inquiry that closely reviewed each exclusion case. Often, aliens were excluded because they lacked funds or had no friends or relatives nearby. In these cases the Board of Special Inquiry usually admitted the person if someone could post bond or one of the immigrant aid societies would take responsibility for the alien. Those denied admission by the Board were deported at the expense of the transportation company that brought the alien to the port.
Originally published in A Historical Guide to the U.S. Government, edited by George T. Kurian. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Reprinted on the USCIS website with permission.