Documentary Celebrates Ellis Island Immigration

USCIS and the Legacy of Ellis Island, a new documentary video created and released by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS,) celebrates federal immigration employees who processed more than 12 million immigrants at the iconic New York port from 1892 to 1954. The documentary relays the story of Ellis Island from the perspective of agency employees.

The video, which runs less than 30 minutes and is available on YouTube, consists of 3 chapters– “Creating Ellis Island,” “Working on the Island” and “Remembering Ellis Island.” With each segment, viewers gain understanding and insight on the inception, growth and development around the various iterations of the nation’s immigration services. From the beginnings early in the last century with the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization that operated under the Department of Commerce and Labor through to the current USCIS, which is run as part of  the Department of Homeland Security, strong roots lay at Ellis Island Immigration Station.

“USCIS holds a distinctive place in history for its role in processing immigrants into the fabric of our nation,” agency Director Francis Cissna told USCIS employees at the video’s premiere. “It remains an indisputable fact that America is a nation of immigrants. As employees, we all have an essential duty in honoring and preserving that legacy.”

Beginning with a focus on the role of Ellis Island relative to the origins of federal immigration, the video then follows with an exploration of the “often overlooked roles of Ellis Island’s employees and their importance to the operation of the nation’s busiest immigration station,” according to a USCIS release. Focusing on the historical legacy of Ellis Island, the documentary concludes with a focus on the lasting connection with USCIS.

USCIS produced the video with research from agency historians as well as with support from the National Park Service. Besides tapping oral history recordings and other documents from Ellis Island employees, the video also highlights the historic collections of Ellis Island Immigration Station.

Interestingly, historians featured in the documentary discuss some of the persistent myths involving Ellis Island. Among the most prevalent of these is the notion that officers stationed on the island commonly altered family names to create Americanized surname versions. In reality, say historians in the video, immigrant names relayed on ship manifests prevented these kinds of ad hoc changes from occurring. At the same time, it is accurate that many individuals “Americanized” their names during the immigration process.

Another common misconception addressed in the video is the idea that immigrants passing through Ellis Island became naturalized citizens there. While no naturalization ceremonies occurred on the island during its operational years as an immigration station, its restoration in the last decades has opened it up as a historic and sentimental location for contemporary immigrants to take the Oath of Allegiance and to become U.S. citizens.