May 27, 2018
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Hahn’s fifth graders

By: Irene Hilsendager
April 13, 2018
‘Discover Ellis Island’ 2009

Sometime during the week of Oct. 28th, fifth-grade teacher, Shawna Whiteside, continued to carry on the Marguerite Hahn tradition of studying about immigration, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The roomful of students came back from recess with expressions on their face that said, “what is going on.” Their classroom had been turned into Ellis Island along with a cardboard object that represented the Statute of Liberty. This was one time that no one spoke English. A volunteer said to the students in Spanish, “Welcome to America and line up in one long line.” Only the Spanish speaking students lined up, so many hand gestures had to be made. The students had to be inspected and interviewed along with answering many questions and also being fingerprinted. A Japanese nurse was in the medical room examining eyes and teeth. Upon having the exam done, some of the children said those in charge seemed “mean;” even if they weren’t mean but the students felt that it was being mean and degrading. After the examinations, the students also had to take a citizenship test in order to become citizens of the United States. If they passed they would receive a passport. After the history lesson, the students had to write a paper with their parents to describe the experience. Many said they received knowledge, but others said they felt it was offensive, offensive when their names were being changed. Many of the students also felt intimidated due to no English being spoken.

Do you know that it has been estimated that close to 40 percent of all current United States citizens can trace one or more of their ancestors to Ellis Island?

Between 1630 and 1770, Ellis Island was just a lot of sand in the Hudson River.

Around the time of the Revolutionary War, the New York merchant Samuel Ellis bought the island. He died in 1794 and in 1808 New York State bought the island from his family.

The first federal immigration law, the Naturalization Act is passed in 1790- which allowed all white males living in the United States for two years to become citizens. In 1814 nearly 5 million people arrived from northern and western Europe over 45 years. The potato blight that struck Ireland led to the immigration of over 1 million Irish alone to come in the next decade. At the same time a large number of Germans would flee due to political and economic unrest. In 1875 the United States had forbid prostitutes and criminals from entering the country, which also restricted “lunatics” and “idiots.”

The first Ellis Island Immigration Station officially opened on January 1 of 1892. 

In order to add more space to Ellis Island, two new parcels were created using landfill. One island housed the hospital administration and the other a contagious disease ward and another island held the psychiatric ward. By 1906 Ellis Island had grown to more than 27 acres. Starting in 1917, Ellis Island began operating as a hospital for the United States Army. At the time the literacy test was introduced and the law stayed on the books until 1952. Anyone over the age of 16 who could not read 30 to 40 test words in their native language could no longer be admitted through Ellis Island and another law was passed that nearly all Asian immigrants were banned. In 1954 all 33 buildings on Ellis Island were officially closed.

In 1976 Ellis Island fell under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service as part of the National Monument. Ellis Island was opened to the public in 1976 featuring hour long guided tours of the Main Arrivals Building.

Meanwhile, immigrations into the United States continued but mostly by land routes such as through Canada or South America. In the 1950s more than half of all immigrants were Europeans and only six percent were Asian, but by the 1990s the percentages of Latino and African immigrants jumped significantly. Between 1965 and 2000, the highest numbers of immigrants to the United States have come from Mexico and another million are from the Philippines, Korea, the Dominican Republic, India, Cuba and Vietnam.  

Debates still today continue over how America should attack the effects of high immigration rates.

Irene Hilsendager’s column each week touches on moments in the history of Cotati, Rohnert Park and Penngrove.