Disabled Upon Arrival: The Rhetorical Construction of Disability and Race at Ellis Island
I’m going to ask you to come with me on a short trip. We’ll travel to New York City, approaching from the west, over the southern tip of Manhattan and out across New YorkBay toEllis Island, theway-station for millions of new Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. During our visit to Ellis Island for this essay, Iwill examinewhat the Ellis Island experience entailed, paying attention specifically to the ways that Ellis
Island policed and limited immigration in the early twentieth century, leading up to the highly restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s. This tour will concentrate on the ways that Ellis Island rhetorically constructed disability, and contingently race. Today, you can go on a tour of the grounds, and you can learn about the success stories of plucky migrants, on the cusp of freedom and opportunity. You can buy a mug and a
T-shirt. But, in thepast, if youwere traveling to Ellis Island from the other direction, your experience of the island might have been quite different. It is estimated that 40 percent of the current American population can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island.1 More than 22 million people entered the country through this immigration station. In the years of peak immigration, from the late 1800s until the clampdown on immigration in the 1920s, you might have arrived as one of thousands of steerage passengers on an ocean liner fromEurope.WereyouofeasternEuropean, southern European, African, or Jewish heritage, you would have been subject to a restrictive squeeze not unlike the cramping you felt in your boat’s close quarters as you came across the Atlantic.2 As you were processed throughEllis Island,youbecamepart of an indelible marking, your body was interrogated, written across, and read into.