Written By: Ben Cosgrove
There are few more lasting emblems of immigration to the U.S. than Ellis Island—the portal through which some 12 million immigrants entered America between 1892 and 1954. By some estimates, a 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
Near the end of that long run, in the fall of 1950, LIFE photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt went out to the island in Upper New York Bay to make some pictures. The rough machinery of politics had brought confusion and delay to the processing of thousands of men, women and children looking to step on to American soil. But beyond chronicling the impact that political rivalries in Washington were having on real lives, Eisenstaedt’s pictures also encompass a more permanent truth about the immigrant’s journey, and these images mirror photographs made at Ellis Island decades before.
Many of the pictures in this gallery were never published in LIFE, but some appeared in the Nov. 13, 1950. The story explained the photos, and the situation on the island, this way:
The flat, 30-acre island in New York Bay is not what European Communists gleefully call it—”that well-known concentration camp.” But Ellis Island is today a gray and gloomy place suddenly full of bewildered people who have become victims of American politics.
The trouble began with an unfortunate law, the McCarran Communist control bill. The bill, designed to exclude subversives, was so loosely drawn that it excluded harmless and desirable aliens as well, people whose only crime may have been membership in the Hitler Youth at the age of 9 or enrollment in a Fascist labor union when joining was a prerequisite to eating. Last September, President Truman vetoed the bill. Congress re-passed it over his veto. [In the ensuing power struggle, would-be] immigrants were caught up in this political wrangle, and “delayed” beyond reason on the little island.
LIFE then went on the describe the “flood-tide activity” at Ellis that the great photographer Lewis Hine documented in the early 1900s activity that slowed to a trickle (1,300 a month vs. 3,000 a day in 1906) by the late 1940s and noted that for the first time in decades, the island was “again full of deeply human scenes.”
The new aliens, photographed here by LIFE’s Alfred Eisenstaedt, look the same, have old-country clothes and the same wide-eyed, insistent children. The old buildings, with their huge, tiled rooms, and wire-mesh partitions, are still the same. But this time, because the inspectors must examine not only the bodies and finances of the aliens but their past political connections as well, the atmosphere is gloomier and there are long, inexplicable delays filled with anxiety. . . . [Some] are held for several days. Most of them wind up at a high pitch of exasperation, crying, “Why don’t you ask me now what I think of your beautiful country? Why don’t you ask me now?” Only a few, like Professor Arrigo Poppi, who came from the University of Bologna to study medicine at Harvard, retain their humor. “I came here to study the heart disease,” he said, “and instead I get the heart disease.”
Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.