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L’Isola dell Lagrime

For most of this generation of Italian immigrants, their first steps on U.S. soil were taken in a place that has now become a legend—Ellis Island.

Ellis Island was founded as a solution to a serious social crisis. New York’s previous immigrant processing station, a decaying fortress called Castle Garden, had become a pit of corruption and theft, where new immigrants had to run a gauntlet of swindlers, pickpockets, and armed robbers before escaping with their freedom and their paperwork. In order to ensure a safe, controlled, and regulated entry process, the federal government took over immigrant processing and erected a set of new, purpose-built facilities on an island in New York Harbor.

The immigration station at Ellis Island represented a new type of government institution and, since its closing in 1932, has become an enduring symbol of the immigrant experience in the United States. During the forty years it operated, Ellis Island saw more than 12 million immigrants pass through its gates, at a rate of up to 5,000 people a day. For many generations of Americans, and for almost all Italian Americans, Ellis Island is the first chapter of their family’s story in the United States.

When the first group of immigrants disembarked on Ellis Island in 1892, they found themselves in the grip of a bewildering, though still orderly, regime of bureaucratic procedures. Newcomers were numbered, sorted, and sent through a series of inspections, where they were checked for physical and mental fitness and for their ability to find work in the U.S. The consequences of failing an eye exam, or of seeming too frail for manual labor, could be devastating; one member of a family could be sent back to Italy, perhaps never to see his or her loved ones again, because of a hint of trachoma or a careless inspector. Although less than 2 percent of Italians were turned away, fear of such a separation led some immigrants to rename Ellis Island L’Isola dell Lagrime—the Island of Tears.

Even for those who made their way successfully through the battery of inspections, Ellis Island was generally not a pleasant experience. The regulations were confusing, the crowds disorienting, the officials rushed, and the hubbub of countless competing languages must have been jarring to the nerves. The moment of departure, when successful immigrants boarded ferries for New York City or destinations further west, came as a tremendous relief. As a final step, however, each new arrival had to be entered by name in the island’s official registry book. Because of the rush, the echoing noise of the vast Registry Hall, and many registrars’ unfamiliarity with European languages, some immigrants found themselves leaving with new, shorter, “American” versions of their names—a last, dubious gift from Ellis Island.

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