An unimaginable journey

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An Unimaginable Journey

Allyson Coppock

The University of Michigan-Dearborn


Over the past 200 years, the journey and process in which an immigrant goes through to gain permanent residence in The United States America has drastically changed. What is the journey like for immigrants? How has the immigration journey and process changed? Why has the immigration journey and process changed? The immigration journey to America has been evolved by technology. During the 1800 and 1900s, the journey to America was very brutal and hard. Since the early 1900s, the immigration journey to America has become less brutal and hard compared to the 1800 and 1900s. The immigration process to gain permanent residence in the U.S. has become very strict because of the evolving world economy. This paper is based on a recent paper completed in Composition 105 at The University of Michigan-Dearborn. This paper focuses on the voyages immigrants have taken to gain a permanent residence in The United States of America over a course of 200 years.

Keywords: Immigrants, The United States of America, evolving, residence.

An Unimaginable Journey

Imagine leaving the place that has always been known as home and moving to a place unknown, America. Boarding a steamship in 1922 with precious belongings in tow and there is no looking back. In 1922, my great grandfather, Duncan Galbraith, did such. He left Scotland to start a new life in America. My great grandfather boarded the ship, The Celtic, as a steerage passenger. He arrived in America on Ellis Island and soon took a train to Detroit, MI with no money in tow. Now imagine, coming to an unfamiliar country, where everyone is a stranger, and with no money. This is the process many immigrants have gone through and are still going through presently. Over the past 200 years, the journey and process in which an immigrant goes through to gain permanent residence in The United States America has drastically changed.

Before going on the biggest journey of their lives in the 1800 and 1900s, many immigrants faced an even major journey: getting to the port. Immigrants would travel by train, wagon, donkey, or even by foot. Many immigrants would have to wait days, weeks, and even months at the port, either for their paperwork to be completed or for their ship to arrive because train schedules were not coordinated with the sailing dates. Assuming their paperwork was in order and tickets had been purchased, some provision was usually made for the care of the emigrants waiting for a ship (“”).

After the 1893 United States immigration law went into effect, each passenger had to answer up to thirty one questions before boarding the ship (Encyclopedia of Immigration, 2012). These questions included: name, age, sex, marital status, occupation, nationality, ability to read or write, race, physical and mental health, last residence, and the name and address of the nearest relative or friend in the immigrant’s country of origin. Immigrants were also asked whether they had at least $25.00 in their pocket, whether they had ever been in prison or in an institution, or if they were polygamists or anarchists (“”).

Before debarking, Immigrants had many fears about sickness. Would they be able to board the ship if they “looked sick?” Would they have to pay the American doctor or inspector? In 1891, an immigration law was placed under federal control containing a provision that excluded people suffering from dangerous contagious diseases (Encyclopedia of Immigration, 2012). Steamship lines were held accountable for medical examinations of the immigrants before departing the port. Trachoma, a communicable eye affliction, was specially feared among many immigrants ("Pubmed health," 2010). Immigrants preparing to debark would ask each other if they “looked sick in the eyes.”

After the medical exams were completed, the passengers were guided onboard. There were three types of accommodations on the ships that brought immigrants to America during the 1900s: first class, second class, and steerage. The steerage passengers were guided to their accommodations by squeezing past the ship’s machinery and directed down steep stairways into the enclosed lower decks. (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Steerage passengers walking down the steep and twisted stairs onboard steamships ("Gjenvick-gjnovick archives," 2011).
Immigrants who could only afford the minimal third-class fees of about thirty dollars were referred to as “steerage passengers.” The name came from the part of the ship, the steerage, where they were kept and which provided the cheapest possible accommodations (Stolyarov II, 2005). It was crowded below deck, dark, unsanitary, foul smelling, and steerage passengers were seldom allowed to go up for fresh air. The life of a steerage passenger was a nightmare.

As said in a report to President William H. Taft, the United States Immigration Commission said, “The open deck space reserved for steerage passengers is usually very limited, and situated in the worst part of the ship, subject to the most violent motion, to the dirt from the stacks and odors from the hold and galleys…the only provisions for eating are frequently shelves or benches along the sides or in the passages of sleeping compartments. Dining rooms are rare and, if found, are often shared with berths installed along the walls. Toilets and washrooms are completely inadequate; saltwater is only available. The ventilation is almost always inadequate, and the air soon becomes foul. The unattended vomit of the seasick, the odors of not too clean bodies, the reek of food and the awful stench of the nearby toilet rooms make the atmosphere of the steerage such that is a marvel that human flesh can endure it. Most immigrants lie in their berths for most of the voyage, in a stupor caused by the foul air. The food often repels them. It is almost impossible to keep personally clean. All of these conditions are naturally aggravated by the crowding,” (“”).

Steerage passengers had to survive trials of seasickness, inadequate food, lack of privacy, cramped living quarters, and spreading illnesses. Living conditions were often primitive. Space and privacy were both hard to come by. Passengers slept in narrow, closely packed bunks located below deck. During storms, the doors were latched closed, leaving steerage passengers with little light or fresh air. The stench of vomit and un-emptied toilets could be overwhelming. The constant waves crashing upon the ship made standing difficult on many days. On the worst days, passengers could not even stay in their beds to sleep; they instead went sliding about the cabin (Krenzelok).

The food on board did not contain a great deal of variety. Steerage passengers were lucky to get what they got. The quality of water was also often lacking due to the fact that the water was stored in casks that had not been cleaned properly after carrying substances such as oil, vinegar, turpentine, or wine on previous journeys. Passengers were given the option to shower with salt water or to not shower at all (Stolyarov II, 2005). Many passengers advised other passengers to bring coffee because the quality of the water was poor. The steerage passengers also found eating rather difficult. Many used their trunks as tables. In rough waters, passengers struggled to prevent their tables from sliding back and forth across the deck.

Disease killed many immigrants while onboard these steamships. Illnesses often spread throughout the ships in epidemic proportions due to the crowded and unsanitary conditions. Typhus, bacterial disease spread by lice or fleas, cholera, an infection of the small intestine that causes a large amount of watery diarrhea, and dysentery and intestinal inflammation that can lead to severe diarrhea with mucus or blood in the feces, were some of the biggest threats ("Pubmed health," 2010). At the root of these problems was a mindset on the part of many of the companies that considered the immigrants "human cargo." These same companies would often ship American-made goods to Europe on the return trip, and could not yet see the essential distinction between transporting products and people (Stolyarov II, 2005).

Luckily for my grandfather, he did not travel to America during the 1800s. In the 1800s, the voyage to America took about six weeks compared to my grandfather’s week. During this time, ships also encountered many fires and shipwrecks. In 1848, the Ocean Monarch, carrying immigrants from Liverpool to Boston caught fire and 176 lives were lost. As ships got larger in the 1800s, so did the deaths from fires. In 1858, an estimated 500 immigrants died after a fire on the steamship, Austria. In 1834, seventeen ships were shipwrecked in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and 731 immigrants lost their lives. During the duration of 1847-1852, forty three immigration ships out of 6,877 failed to reach their destination, resulting in the deaths of 1,043 passengers (Peter McMillan, 2011).

However, travel during the 1900s was still risky. On April 10, 1912, the RMS Titanic, captained by Edward J. Smith, embarked on its maiden voyage, sailing from Southampton England, to New York City. The Titanic was one of the largest and most luxurious passenger liners of its time, and it was also considered by many to be unsinkable. However, only four days after the Titanic embarked on its very first voyage, the ship struck an iceberg on April 14 and early the next day, sank. Some 1,500 people lost their lives in the wreckage (“Titanic: The unsinkable,” 2012). Figure 2.

Figure 2: The Titanic

Luckily for many immigrants, technology over the past 100 years has improved significantly and has made the journey for immigrants to move to America much easier. From the late 1900s up until 2012, most immigrants have come to America by plane instead of a boat. Although the journey to America is now easier for many immigrants, and is considered the “easy part” (in most cases), the process in which an immigrant must go through to gain permanent legal residence in the United States is very strict. There are two steps in this process. First, an immigrant must fit into an existing immigration category. If an immigrant does not fit into one of the existing categories, then that person may not enter or visit the United States under its laws. There are four main categories in which an immigrant can gain lawful permanent resident status in the United States through: one, a close family member who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, two, an employer or special skill, three, a special lottery of extra visas and four, a special category for protected classes of people. Secondly, an immigrant must be able to acquire a legal status in the Unites States based on their own background. Even if someone does fit into one of the four categories previously stated, there still may be reasons why an immigrant may not be allowed to enter or stay in the United States. These reasons include: conviction of crimes, terrorism, immigration violations and so on (“Energy of a Nation,” 2011).

Figure 3: Number of immigrants from 1900-2000
Unlike the brutal journey immigrants endured during the 1800 and early 1900s, immigrants presently must go through the brutal process to gain a permanent legal status in the United States. Presently in 2012, immigrants do not have to endure a week to six week long journey. However, there is much more paperwork to be filled out now. The immigration journey and process has changed over the last 200 years due to an evolving economy in the United States. Immigration rates have been higher than ever before and the United States is in full gear to welcome new citizens (Camarota, 2001). (Figure 3).

I can now imagine what my great grandfather had to go through in 1922 on his journey to America. Surviving the voyage is a huge accomplishment in itself and starting from scratch in America is an even bigger accomplishment. Immigrants who came to the U.S. in the past sixty to seventy years did not embark on the journey my great grandfather took, but they still had to overcome many hardships. Immigration to the U.S. is continuously evolving because of the environment, economy, and technology. I wish my great grandfather could have had a more positive experience on his migration to the United States, but I appreciate him that much more because he was willing to risk it all for a future for himself and his family.


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