A tired child is ready to go to sleep with his head on the dining-hall table in Ellis Island in 1950. Alfred Eisenstaedt captured the faces, the clothes, and even the dreams and the fears of countless more like him who have crossed thousands of miles to get to this very spot — and were stopped, for the moment, by the one force capable of thwarting hope: bureaucracy.
Today, the question of whether the United States will seriously address comprehensive immigration reform looms larger than ever. Here we see life on one irreducible, physical emblem of immigration in the U.S. — Ellis Island — in the '50s, through the lens of one of Life magazine's greatest photographers (and a proud immigrant himself), Alfred Eisenstaedt.
Eisenstaedt went to the island in Upper New York Bay in the fall of 1950 because the rough machinery of politics had once again brought confusion and delay to the processing of hundreds upon hundreds of men, women and children looking to step on to American soil. But beyond chronicling the immediately evident impact that political rivalries in Washington were having on real, human lives a few hundred miles to the north, Eisensteadt’s pictures also uncannily mirror photographs made at Ellis Island decades before.
Rachel and Schulim Pewzner, from Warsaw, Poland, interviewed at Ellis Island, 1950. By some estimates, a full third of the population of the United States — more than 100 million people — can trace their ancestry to immigrants who first arrived at Ellis Island.
Ellis Island, 1950. At the time, Life magazine called the flat, 30-acre island in New York Bay
"a gray and gloomy place suddenly full of bewildered people who have become victims of American politics."
Men on a ferry in New York Harbor look at lower Manhattan, 1950. Because the inspectors were examining not only the bodies and finances of the aliens but their past political connections as well, the atmosphere was gloomier than ever before, Life wrote. Only a few, like Professor Arrigo Poppi, who came from the University of Bologna to study medicine at Harvard, retain any humor. “I came here to study the heart disease,” he said, “and instead I get the heart disease.” Learn more about Ellis Island in the full gallery at Life.com.
On the anniversary of the November day in 1954 when Ellis Island closed — after seeing more than 12 million immigrants pass through its doors — LIFE.com offers a series of rare black and white pictures, many of which have never been published before. See more great photos in the full gallery at Life.com.