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May 8, 2021

Vintage Photos of Immigrants at Ellis Island, 1950

Ellis Island is a historical site that opened in 1892 as an immigration station, a purpose it served for more than 60 years until it closed in 1954. Located at the mouth of Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, Ellis Island saw millions of newly arrived immigrants pass through its doors. In fact, it has been estimated that close to 40 percent of all current U.S. citizens can trace at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island.

When Ellis Island opened, a great change was taking place in U.S. immigration. Fewer arrivals were coming from northern and western Europe—Germany, Ireland, Britain and the Scandinavian countries—as more and more immigrants poured in from southern and eastern Europe.

Among this new generation were Jews escaping from political and economic oppression in czarist Russia and eastern Europe and Italians escaping poverty in their country. There were also Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Serbs, Slovaks and Greeks, along with non-Europeans from Syria, Turkey and Armenia.

The reasons they left their homes in the Old World included war, drought, famine and religious persecution, and all had hopes for greater opportunity in the New World.

In the fall of 1950, LIFE photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt went out to the island in Upper New York Bay to make some pictures. The rough machinery of politics had brought confusion and delay to the processing of thousands of men, women and children looking to step on to American soil. But beyond chronicling the impact that political rivalries in Washington were having on real lives, Eisenstaedt’s pictures also encompass a more permanent truth about the immigrant’s journey, and these images mirror photographs made at Ellis Island decades before.

(Photos by Alfred Eisenstaedt; Life Pictures/Getty Images)


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