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“An Immigrant Like an Automobile”

By Malgorzata Szejnert
Translated By Sean Gasper Bye


From preeminent Polish journalist Malgorzata Szejnert, Ellis Island: A People's History, translated by Sean Gasper Bye and out next week with Scribe Publications, pieces together a portrait of Ellis Island through primary source documents from immigrants, interpreters, and medical staff. In the excerpt below, Szejnert details how the island's medical inspectors determined which immigrants were healthy enough to be let into the United States.


An Immigrant Like an Automobile

Maud Mosher surveys the line of immigrants, and her eyes fill with tears. Dr. Victor Safford maintains a detached distance, perhaps defensively. He calmly picks off the fleas he’s caught from an Italian ship (they’ve left red spots on his neck) as he considers this problem: what is the difference between assessing an automobile one wishes to purchase, and assessing a person who is to be allowed into the United States?

It is a no more difficult task to detect poorly built, defective, or broken-down human beings than to recognize a cheap or defective automobile. It requires of course some training and experience to do either, but in any case difficulty usually arises not so much in recognizing that something is wrong as in determining and demonstrating just what is wrong. With immigrants the metaphor may be carried still further. Ordinarily when a person goes to a doctor he is helped to locate the cause of trouble by the patient himself, who relates his subjective symptoms. The alien who comes before the immigration medical officer is usually interested only in leading the medical officer to believe that nothing is wrong, and one might as well waste time waiting for an automobile to tell of its internal feelings as to hope to get diagnostic help from the subjective symptoms of a diseased immigrant . . . [T]he wise man who really wants to find out all he can about an automobile, or an immigrant, will want to see both in action, performing as well as at rest, and to watch both at a distance as well as to scrutinize them close at hand. Defects, derangements, and symptoms of disease which would not be disclosed by a so-called “careful physical examination” are often easily recognizable in watching a person twenty-five feet away. (Safford, Immigration Problems, pp. 244–5)

That is precisely what takes place on the island. After entering a large vestibule on the ground floor of the station’s main building, the immigrants climb up one floor, under the watchful eye of doctors who, as we already know, wear military-looking uniforms. People arriving from the subjugated nations of Europe fear nothing and no one more than men in uniforms, who embody oppression in their towns and villages—so they do everything to stay out of sight: hiding behind someone taller, disappearing into their coats, or covering themselves with their bundles. These naive methods have been quickly discovered, catalogued, and laid out in instructions, and the doctors know exactly whom to pull out of the crowd for further investigation.

A medical inspector giving the immigrants a quick visual once-over must pay attention to six elements: the skin of the head, the face, the neck, the arms, the gait, and their general condition—physical and mental.

If any of the above is invisible to the naked eye, the doctor will stop the immigrant to make sure there is nothing suspicious going on.

A high collar. This must be unbuttoned to check if there is a goiter or an ulcer lurking underneath.

A hat. Often used to cover ringworm or mycosis.

A thick head of curls. As above.

A cap pulled low over the eyes. This could conceal conjunctivitis or trachoma.

A hand hidden under a coat, a scarf, or a bag. The limb may turn out to be deformed, paralyzed, missing fingers, or afflicted with tinea.

Luggage. This can be used to conceal deficient posture. The immigrant must lay their bags on the ground and walk about ten feet without them.

Children above the age of two clinging to their mothers. The mother must proceed as above.

It is calculated that on days with larger intake, when Ellis Island accepts four to five thousand people, each doctor has more or less six seconds to visually scan a single person. The medical inspectors, also known as “line inspectors,” are increasingly known for their “six-second physicals.”

If the six-second inspectors notice something and consider further, closer investigation to be necessary, they must give instructions using a piece of chalk. If a person is suspected of a mental defect, the inspectors draw an X on their clothes. If a mental defect is very likely, they draw a circle around the X. B is back, C—conjunctivitis, CT—trachoma, E—eyes, F—face, Ft—feet, G—goiter, H—heart, K—hernia, N—neck, P—physical and lungs, Pg—pregnancy, Sc—scalp, S—senility.

Sometimes they don’t bother with camouflage, instead writing a whole word in chalk, usually on the immigrant’s chest or back: arms, legs, skin, nails.

Next, another doctor will examine the people marked with chalk, standing them in a well-lit place near a large window. On the island they call them the “eye men.” They will make a closer inspection of suspicious eyes, heads, and hands. Sometimes they will ask about something with the help of an interpreter. They might free an immigrant from suspicion or confirm it. In the latter case, they lead the patient into one of the medical rooms for further examination, sometimes psychological.

Until 1998, there was no known case in the history of the island of someone escaping the clutches of the chalk symbols. But that was the year an eighty-four-year-old Spanish woman named Espuga Manuela Carnero returned to Ellis Island. She had emigrated to America in 1920 with her mother and brother. She was six, but could remember the inspector marking her brother’s jacket with chalk. Her mother pulled the jacket off him so quickly and dexterously that no one noticed a thing. Somehow, the boy wasn’t pulled out of line, nor separated from his family. Espuga Manuela Carnero came to Ellis Island to tell that story and record it, because it is never too late to tell others how you must fight to the end, even when resistance seems hopeless.1


1. Drawn from an interview conducted 12 August 1998 by Paul E. Sigrist Jr for the Oral History Project, Ellis Island Immigration Museum.


From Ellis Island: A People's History by Malgorzata Szejnert, translated by Sean Gasper Bye. Available August 2020 from Scribe Publications. By arrangement with the publisher.


Related Reading:

From Five Continents to Five Boroughs: A Language Map for New York City

Exploring Italian Language, Rap, and Migration through Translation

First Read: From "No Presents Please"


Published Jul 30, 2020   Copyright 2020 Malgorzata Szejnert

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