The average length of time spent on Ellis Island for a person who passed through the screening procedures was two to five hours. Twelve million immigrants entered the United States after passing through the Ellis Island facilities. Many stayed only long enough to be inspected and allowed to enter the country, but others more permanently changed their status through naturalization proceedings or other processes.
In 1998, there were approximately 5,000 people living in America who had once lived in Ellis Island itself. The majority of these were descendants of the original European settlers or refugees from around the world who were granted asylum in America. However, even though it is no longer a functioning immigration station, many aspects of life at Ellis Island are preserved in museums across the country. These include: the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York City; the Ellis Island National Monument near Battery Park City, Manhattan; and the American Italian Museum in Baltimore's Little Italy.
People could be detained at Ellis Island if they were considered dangerous to public safety or security issues. Some were held temporarily while their cases were resolved, such as those who were denied entry into the United States or who were deported. Others were held indefinitely, such as suspected spies. A small number were imprisoned until they could be sent back to Europe.
To try to prevent this type of unlawful immigration, Angel Island authorities subjected newcomers to lengthy interrogations. While processing arrivals at Ellis Island usually takes a few hours or a few days at most, immigrants at Angel Island might wait weeks, months, or even years. The length of their stay depended on how quickly they could convince an inspector to grant them permission to enter the United States.
Arrivals were taken to what was then known as the "Central Station" where they would be interviewed by an official from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). If the interview revealed that the immigrant was likely qualify for one of several specific exemptions from the quota system, he or she would be allowed to continue onto the next stage of inspection. Otherwise, the person would be returned to the queue for future admissions during the same month.
At the end of each day's interviews, the INS officials would compile a list of those people who did not qualify for any exemption and were therefore required to leave the country within five days. This list was called the "Hold List." People listed on the Hold List could either go back to their home countries or be detained indefinitely while their cases were resolved through the court system. In practice, very few people ever got off the island because there were no facilities on it to hold anyone longer than five days.
When travelers arrived at Ellis Island, they were processed via the station, and the great majority of them were permitted to lawfully enter the United States within three to five hours. Nonetheless, around 20% of immigrants had circumstances that required extra time. These immigrants were forced to spend the night in filthy dorms. The next day, a staff member from the Immigration Service would interview them to determine their fate. If they were found to be ineligble for admission, then they would be deported back to Europe.
At Angel Island, those being detained were held in what was called the "Pacific Wing". There were two sets of cells, one for men and another for women and children. Each cell had six metal beds with a foam rubber mattress and no sheets or blankets. The room also lacked a bathroom or shower. People were given a blanket and sheet to sleep on. The detention center did not have heaters during the winter months.
Those who were found to be eligible for admission were taken before a Board of Special Inquiry (BSI) judge. This judge made the final determination as to whether an immigrant could remain in the country. If the judge decided that the person should be allowed to stay, an approval number was assigned. Otherwise, they would be sent back to their home country.
The average length of time people spent at Angel Island was nine days.
The Ellis Island examination procedure took 3 to 5 hours if an immigrant's documents were in order and they were in generally good health. The inspections were conducted in the Registry Room (Great Hall), where doctors would scan each individual for evident physical issues. Mental issues such as insanity were also considered during these examinations.
If an immigrant was found to be fit for travel, they would then be given a "passport" to prove that they had been granted entry into the United States. If an immigrant was not deemed fit for travel, they would then be referred to another office within the main building for further evaluation by a U.S. Public Health Service physician. This assessment included questions about their symptoms and any past medical history shared by the immigrant or their family members. If the physician determined that the person was indeed unfit for travel because of a medical issue, they would be provided with accommodations within the hospital until they recovered enough to leave.
People who were unable to satisfy the requirements for a passport were issued a Certificate of Good Conduct, which allowed them and their families to re-enter the United States after several years away. These certificates were valid for a period of three months and could be renewed once. People who obtained Certificates of Good Conduct but later became ill or disabled were still eligible to come back into the country on a permanent basis.