Can You Still Immigrate Through Ellis Island?

Nearly 700 immigrants passed through the Ellis Island Immigration Station on January 1, 1892, according to History, and nearly 12 million total would enter through its ports over the next three decades. But by the end of World War I, the United States' golden era of immigration was already well into its decline.

Ellis Island's peak years came to an end in 1924 with the passage of the Immigration Act, as Mental Floss reported. The latest of several restrictive immigration laws, the Immigration Act of 1924 imposed the heaviest restrictions to date, including per-country immigration quotas and an annual 165,000 cap on immigrants from outside the Western Hemisphere (according to History and U.S. House of Representatives Archives). With fewer and fewer people allowed to immigrate to the United States, Ellis Island admitted fewer and fewer hopeful would-be Americans. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, for the first time, more people left the U.S. than entered it (according to History).

From detention center to disrepair

By the time World War II struck in the 1940s, both Ellis Island and the rosy values it claimed to represent had fallen into disrepair. Once teeming with "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," the Ellis Island Immigration Station became a detention center. According to the German American Internee Coalition, Ellis Island's nearly 7,000 detainees included families, suspected political dissidents, and immigrants who simply had trouble with paperwork (per Mental Floss). It continued to serve as a detention center until the early 1950s, according to History.

The last immigrant to enter through Ellis Island — Arne Peterssen of Norway, per Mental Floss — would pass through its gates in 1954. According to History, the Island's structures formally closed that November, and in 1955, it was declared "surplus property." The center — and much of the nation — closed its ports.

Today, although Ellis Island is neither an immigrant processing center nor a detention site, the legacy of the latter hasn't left us — over 20,000 immigrants were detained in 2022 at ICE facilities across the United States, according to TRAC Immigration.

According to History, many immigrants coming through Ellis Island did so with no passports or papers at all. Today, immigration involves a lengthy application process. Rather than entering at a port like Ellis Island, prospective immigrants are told to coordinate with their local consulate or embassy before traveling, according to Ellis Island these days is just a commemorative site, albeit one with a complicated history.