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Ellis Island Immigration

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Ellis Island Immigration: An envious, romantic look at old-time travel

“In this room,” spoke the crazy eyed park ranger at the Ellis Island immigration center, “more than two thousand immigrants would be processed each day. The average expected wait for each immigrant was around three to five hours.”
Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
in Brooklyn, New York City- October 12, 2008
Travelogue Travel Photos

The crazy eyed ranger then went on to tell us the procedures which immigration at Ellis Island was carried out between the years of 1892 and 1954. “Over 98% of the immigrants who attempted to come through this building were processed and sent on their way to the interior of the United States. . . . Immigration was even easier to get through in Boston and Georgia.”

Immigration hall at Ellis Island

During the first half of the 20th century, 98% of people who wanted into the USA, could. A half century ago borders were as permeable as the arbitrary lines on a map they actually are. It is a novel concept to me that such a short time ago a person with the means could seize the self-determination to go just about anywhere on planet earth they wished and attempt to make a living. It is a common practice for societies to romanticize the past, but as I listened to the park ranger speak of how the masses of the world moved between countries, I must admit to feeling a slight tinge of historic envy.

Immigrants at Ellis Island

It only took three men at Ellis Island’s immigration center only three to five hours to process thousands of foreigners wishing to enter the USA. I, with a US passport, have waited far longer, in far shorter lines, than this at many immigration booths around the world for measly tourist visas. And, for the record, I know that I have often waited for over an hour and a half to be processed back into my own country.

Ellis Island Immigration Center

What has happened over this past century? In this new world of instant global communication systems, air travel, international trade pacts, and world political dialogue and organization, how have borders become so think? How has it become so difficult to pass from one point to another? As I stand on the precipice of an age of technological and scientific light, I am ever called backward by the notion that society functioned smoother centuries ago.

With each step forward a society takes, it seems as if a dozen rattraps are put up in everyone’s way. Only a century ago the people of this earth could pretty much go and come as they pleased; passports were not necessary and people were trusted to take care of themselves. Now travelers need to fill out mounds of forms, pay money, and wait in line for hours as the rusty gears of the computer-age churn with screeching imperiousness. It is funny to me that a person can now travel to the other side of the world in less than a single day, but it is never certain if they will be allowed to land.

We call this progress.

It is common in the folklore of many Asian cultures and religions to regard the past with reverence. Perhaps the past is ever idealized in these worldviews as a device from which contemporary society can gauge the shortcomings of the present. Perhaps an idealization of history is a way of providing a temporal impetus which states that the present can always be better, that the past was once greater, and that this greatness can be obtained once again.

Or, perhaps, the ways of the past really were freer, more enlightened, healthier, and wiser than today. Perhaps, in this instance, folklore should be read literally.

From where I am standing, the world seems to be rapidly rolling down a long hill into the depths of societal wretchedness.

When I am interrogated, poke, and prodded at immigration points around the world by stern-faced and heavily armed officials, I feel wretched (and the privilege of the Golden Eagle generally procures for me a comparatively timely and hassle-free immigration experience). I hate to think of what the travelers from less prosperous nations with less impressive passports must have to go through to engage in the timeless act of going from point A to point B.

Are people really so much worse, so much more untrustworthy, so much more suspicious that our walls need to be so much thicker?

The history of humanity is a history of migration. To stand in the way of migration is to obstruct the flow of history.

Links to previous travelogue entries:

  • Mexico City First Stop in the New World
  • Journalism Mission
  • Global Economy and Speculation

Ellis Island Immigration: An envious, romantic look at old-time travel
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Filed under: New York City, USA

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 80 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3133 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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