In the late 1800s and early 1900s, immigration to the United States was at an all-time high. Upwards of a million people per year arrived in some years leading up to World War I.1 Hope for better work opportunities, food and shelter for families, religious freedom, personal freedom, and freedom from military conflict led many of these immigrants to the U.S. to start a new home.
The onset of WWI and new U.S. legislation in the 1900s caused the immigration boom to slow down dramatically. Although this slowdown caused Ellis Island to eventually close its doors in 1954, a key change to immigration records in The Immigration Act of 1924 can unlock many doors in your family history research.
The Immigration Act of 1924
Between 1882 and 1924, a series of major immigration laws led to the 1924 legislation that most seriously affected Ellis Island. Some U.S. citizens and organizations during this time began to petition the government for limits on immigration, spurred by concerns for economic conditions and national security. An increased prejudice against immigrants from certain countries also caused a stir over immigration law.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first major law to limit immigration. Follow-up legislation barred immigration for convicts, anarchists, workers illegally recruited overseas, immigrants with certain medical conditions, and other categories of immigrants. In 1917, a law raised the fee paid by new arrivals, instituted a literacy test, and made some restrictions based on an immigrant’s nation of origin.
A two-step series of laws in the early 1920s had the most dramatic effect on immigration. In 1921, the Emergency Quota Act introduced a quota system that gave preference to northern and western Europeans. A follow-up law, the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924, kept this quota system and refined it in ways that further limited immigration from southern and eastern European countries. (Read the full text of the Immigration Act of 1924 .)
Of particular note to Ellis Island historians and people doing immigrant genealogy work, the 1924 law also implemented a visa system. Instead of traveling to the United States with uncertainty about being admitted, hopeful immigrants instead applied for permission at U.S. consulate offices overseas.
How did the Immigration Act of 1924 Affect Ellis Island?
During the first year after the 1924 immigration law passed, the number of immigrants dropped by about half: from 357,803 to 164,667.2Ellis Island, the nation’s largest immigrant receiving station, suddenly received much less traffic—and didn’t need to evaluate or detain most of them, since they already had visas.
Meanwhile, immigration opponents were pushing for the mass removal of some foreign-born residents. Before long, Ellis Island became more of a holding center for potential deportations rather than an entry-processing facility.3 New facilities were soon built to separate immigrants from deportees. During and after World War II, Ellis Island also served as a training center for the U.S. Coast Guard, a military hospital, and a military detention center.4 The facility gradually fell into disrepair and finally closed in 1954.
How Did the 1924 Immigration Law Affect Passenger Arrival Records?
After the 1924 immigration law went into effect, ship passenger arrival manifests still captured the same abundant information about immigrant travelers, as can be seen in the 2-page register entry shown below. In addition, manifests now included a visa number and the date and place of its issue, as shown in the enlarged portion. This column hints at a remarkable, new genealogical resource that became available for immigrant ancestors: visa files!
Those who applied successfully for visas at overseas consulates brought their visa packets with them to the United States. Application forms included personal details such as addresses for the previous 5 years, parents’ names, and photos. Visa packets often also contained certified birth certificates, health clearances, background checks, marriage and military service documents, letters of support, and other correspondence. These packets became part of the immigrants’ visa files, which aren’t available online but may be requested from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Be sure to read the section that USCIS provides on “Avoiding Common Index and Records Request Issues” before submitting a request to make the process smoother.
NY Passenger Arrival Records 1925–1957
You can search for your relatives who immigrated to the United States after 1924 in FamilySearch’s free collection, New York, New York Passenger and Crew Lists 1925–1957. The nearly 29 million names in this database include those who arrived at Ellis Island and in New York airports through 1957 (with a few minor exceptions, as described here).
As shown in the sample record above, passenger arrival records during this time period contain rich personal and family information. Some details may help you build your family tree and extend it overseas. Others may give insight into your relatives’ reasons for immigrating, their plans at the time of travel, and the people who helped support their journeys.
Search here for your relatives in New York passenger lists for 1925–1957. If you think your relatives arrived in New York earlier, you can also search for them in NY passenger arrival manifests for 1820–1891 and for 1892–1924.
If you find your immigrant ancestor in the Ellis Island records, share your story! We’d love to hear how visa records unlocked parts of your family tree. #familysearch
Learn more about Ellis Island and Castle Garden immigration in New York. What records do we have about the immigrants?
- Henry P. Guzda, “Ellis Island a welcome site? Only after years of reform,” Monthly Labor Review (July 1986), pp. 30–36, accessed at https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/1986/07/art4full.pdf, 18 July 2018.
- Robert Keith Murray, The 103rd Ballot: The Legendary 1924 Democratic Convention That Forever Changed Politics (New York City: HarperCollins), 2016.
- Guzda, “Ellis Island.”
- “A Timeline of Ellis Island,” The Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation, accessed July 27, 2018. https://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/ellis-timeline
Other Sources Consulted:
“The Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson–Reed Act),” U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian.
Colletta, John P., PhD. They Came in Ships: A Guide to Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Arrival Record. Revised 3rd edition. Orem, UT : Ancestry Publishing, 2008.
Tepper, Michael. American Passenger Arrival Records: A Guide to the Records of Immigrants Arriving at American Ports by Sail and Steam. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1999.
“Immigration and the Great War.” National Park Service. Accessed July 26, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/articles/immigration-and-the-great-war.htm