To mark the country’s first Veterans Day in 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower’s attorney general, Herbert Brownell, Jr., visited New York’s Ebbets Field, home of the famous Brooklyn Dodgers, to preside over a naturalization ceremony. While he prodded the crowd to engage in the privileges of citizenship, he also announced a dramatic policy shift. The Department of Justice, he explained, would shut down its major immigration prisons along both coasts. At the time, immigration law enforcement responsibilities fell to the Justice Department.
In essence, Brownell announced that the United States planned to stop imprisoning migrants. Detention facilities in Boston, Honolulu, New York, San Francisco, San Pedro, and Seattle would soon close. “The best known of these, of course, is Ellis Island in New York Harbor…Today the little island between the Statue of Liberty and the skyline and piers of New York seems to have served its purpose for Immigration. Only 200 to 300 persons have been detained there in recent months…So, on November 19th, the little gray ferry which has made its hourly run from the Battery to Ellis and return over the years will make its last trip.”
Writing in The New Yorker (November 11, 2019), Adam Hochschild recounts the Ellis Island prison’s role in the sordid roundup of migrant radicals that an earlier attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, oversaw. Relying on a young J. Edgar Hoover, Attorney General Palmer sent teams of immigration officers and police into migrant communities nationwide to subvert the leftist radicalism popular among workers of the era. As many as 10,000 people might have been detained, he explains, though other estimates put the number at about half that. Regardless, as Hochschild writes, “On a winter night a hundred years ago, Ellis Island, the twenty-seven-acre patch of land in New York Harbor that had been the gateway to America for millions of hopeful immigrants, was playing the opposite role. It had been turned into a prison for several hundred men, and a few women, most of whom had arrived in handcuffs and shackles.”
That’s true, but it’s wrong to imply that this was a one-off, ad hoc use of Ellis Island. As Attorney General Brownell’s comments make clear, imprisonment was one of Ellis Island’s primary duties. In Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants, my book scheduled for release by The New Press on December 3, I describe the Ellis Island immigration prison. An official history would later describe it as “a grueling detention-like penitentiary.” One that got plenty of use. In 1907, for example, a dozen years before the night Hochschild writes about, about 10 percent of arriving migrants were detained.
Brownell’s announcement on Veterans Day, 1954, was momentous. It signaled a new direction. The United States didn’t entirely abolish immigration imprisonment in 1954. Mexicans in particular continued facing short-term detention along the Southwest. But by closing down its major holding facilities, we came as close as ever. For the next twenty-five years, the policy that Brownell announced would remain in place.
In Migrating to Prison,I explain why we shifted course. In an era when we are locking up more migrants than ever before, it’s a history worth recalling.