Americans have long responded to immigrants with a mixture of welcome, suspicion and rejection. All three were on display at the Ellis Island hospital complex, whose little-known story is valuably told in filmmaker Lorie Conway's Forgotten Ellis Island: The Extraordinary Story of America's Immigrant Hospital (2007).
At its best, doctors at the facility fought epidemics and treated sick immigrants before sending them on their way. At their worst, they used dubious theories of psychology and eugenics laced with nativism to reject hundreds, if not thousands of immigrants, as "feebleminded."
Of course, Ellis Island admitted more immigrants than it turned away. And the under-acknowledged hospital, as Conway shows, was an impressive facility. It effectively treated a multitude of patients--few of whom spoke English--for a wide range of ailments.
Nevertheless, the process of rejection could be cruel. Fiorello La Guardia, an Ellis Island interpreter before he served as congressman and mayor, looked back on the experience and concluded: "I felt then, and I feel the same today, that over fifty percent of the deportations for alleged mental disease were unjustified. Many of those classified as mental cases were so classified because of ignorance on the part of immigrants or doctors and the inability of the doctors to understand the particular immigrant's norm or standard."
Conway does a good job of recognizing the contrasting aspects of the hospital's history. She also restores the hospital to its proper place in history alongside Ellis Island's better-known Great Hall.
At the same time she tells her story in a creative way, with a combination of narrative, photographs, oral history, and extended block quotations that evoke and explore the hospital's history. (Full disclosure: I'm a friend of the editor.) The book has the feel of a good film, and it is not surprising to learn that Conway has also produced a documentary on the Ellis Island hospital.
The hospital complex is now being fixed up to serve as an institute for the study of immigration and a conference center. I can only hope that the deliberations there reflect Conway's recognition, expressed so well in the story of the Ellis Island hospital, that immigration brings out the worst and the best in Americans.