Ellis Island officially opened as America’s front door on January 1, 1892. A 17-year-old named Annie Moore from County Cork, Ireland, was the first immigrant to be processed at the red-brick depot sitting in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. But once the federal employees did their duty, it was volunteers from more than 40 charitable groups who did much of the real work of converting new arrivals to the U.S. into stable and productive citizens.
As millions of newcomers from Europe and Asia first stepped onto American soil, immigrant-aid charities helped in hundreds of ways: translating, providing food and clothing, offering religious comfort, helping with paperwork and legal procedures, locating relatives who could take new arrivals under their wings, giving safe temporary housing to unaccompanied women and children, lending money for required fees and railroad tickets to inland destinations, finding jobs for men and women who stayed in the area, and laying out myriad other forms of constructive assistance, advice, and encouragement.
These charities included more than a dozen church groups, and organizations like the Traveler’s Aid Society, Italian Welfare League, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Irish Immigrant Society, the Salvation Army, the Lutheran Immigrant Society, the YMCA and YWCA, the Women’s Home Missionary Society, and the Red Cross. They comforted, bolstered, and propelled toward success literally millions of individuals, many of whom arrived from their countries of origin battered and beaten.
And it wasn’t just at early arrival that charities helped. During the decades of peak immigration to the U.S., a so-called “settlement house” movement grew up, funded by donors and staffed by volunteers, to help immigrants Americanize and prosper in their new land. Lots of practical assistance was available at these centers—there were labor bureaus that matched people to jobs, libraries and language classes, gyms and clubs where children could play, instruction in sanitation, cooking, sewing, and childcare, banks where immigrants could safely save money, and consultations with nurses and doctors.
These charitable operations also provided important mentoring and friendships, linking immigrants in need of advice, guidance, and kindness with middle-class volunteers who stepped up in large numbers to help assimilate the new arrivals. The mentors encouraged thrift, sobriety, industry, and family devotion. They brought their new friends to church and synagogue, and introduced them to neighbors and employers. The long-term message that newly arrived immigrants got from these charitable groups was simple: Learn English. Take night classes to become educated and pick up job skills. And study civics so you can become a citizen.
Right to the present day, charities—particularly religious groups—continue to be the primary settlers of many immigrants to the U.S. For instance, refugees, most of whom were violently uprooted from their homes, tend to be especially stressed when they arrive in the U.S., and ill-prepared for a transition to a dramatically different environment. It’s church groups who do almost all the heavy lifting these days to set refugees on their feet. Religious volunteers typically meet the displaced families at the airport, locate apartments for them, furnish their residences and fill refrigerators and pantries, help locate jobs for the breadwinners, then follow up for many months with things like transportation to doctors, school assistance, family counseling, and offering driving lessons and used cars.
As of 2017, there were more than 40 million foreign-born individuals in America, with fresh arrivals streaming in every year. Many of these individuals need guidance, and an occasional boost, to become settled, successful, and happy in America. Much of that human service continues to come from philanthropic men and women motivated by patriotism, religious faith, and kindness.
- National Park Service on immigrant aid societies, nps.gov/elis/learn/historyculture/people_immigrant_aid_worker.htm