Child Migrants Have Been Coming to America Alone Since Ellis Island

Barry Moreno, a librarian at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and author of the book Children of Ellis Island, is quoted in an article about unaccompanied children who immigrated to America. The Immigration Act of 1907 declared that unaccompanied children under 16 were not permitted to enter in the normal fashion. But it didn’t send them packing, either. Instead, the act set up a system in which unaccompanied children — many of whom were orphans — were kept in detention awaiting a special inquiry with immigration inspectors to determine their fate. At these hearings, local missionaries, synagogues, immigrant aid societies and private citizens would often step in and offer to take guardianship of the child, says Moreno.

One of these children may have gown up to become your ancestor. You can read the interesting story, written by Tasneem Raja, in the Moyer & Company web site at


Were they coming illegally or legally? I don’t think there was anything illegal about them coming. I don’t think anyone objects to legal immigration, then or now.


    For a long time the USA put no legal restrictions on immigration, so that anyone who managed to get here was legally entitled to enter and remain in the country as long as they liked, and ultimately to become a US citizen. The “Golden Door” was wide open. Even in 1907 the immigration laws were much more lenient than they are now, so it was still much easier to come legally than it is today. If today’s laws had been in effect when many (perhaps most?) of our ancestors came to the USA, they might not have been able to come here legally.


Two things: 1. Minor immigrant children (those under age 16) without parents have been coming to the United States for a long time – way before Ellis Island. 2. Just ask the Legal Genealogist… laws, including immigration laws, change over the years. The federal government had minimal involvement with immigration until the 1890s and the Ellis Island era – although immigrants came in at other entry points as well – and it wasn’t until about 1920 that numbers for immigrants started to be limited. In the old days, except for some undesirable classifications, there was no such thing as illegal immigration.


And remember that Jesus was an Undocumented Child Refugee too. Thank you for reminding us that there is nothing new under the sun.


Children who were indentured servants have been coming here since the country was first settled. Some time Google “Richard Frethorne” if want to get a glimpse of what it was like for a an indentured boy in 1620 Virginia. He wrote a letter home to England. It is heartbreaking.


My great grandfather immigrated from Ireland at 17 years old by himself in 1860. As he was a minor his naturalization papers show he did not have to give up allegiance to a foreign power. Although some family, including his father, died in the famine his mother, sister, uncle and others followed him to MA.


I googled the 19th century and early 20th century for immigration laws applying to persons coming over the Canadian border, and the Mexican border. The Canadian border was wide open until 1895 when steamship companies began the newly required logs of incoming travelers into the US. So if you walked across the Canadian border, you were home free even after 1895. And that is one really long border.

As for Mexico, well, Google really taught me a lot. After the end of the Mexican American War (1848), 300,000 Mexicans found themselves instant US residents. There don’t seem to be any restrictions until somewhere in the nineteen-twenties. They were excluded from regulation because (forgive me, please) they were cheap labor and were willing to accept all the really rotten jobs that no one else wanted.

There were no medical checks, no financial checks, no literacy checks, no one cared if minor aged children lived or died coming over from the non-east coast entry ways.

Golly-gee-wiz, the world did not end with all of these people newly come to the US. And it won’t end with these pathetic little children so desperately in need of kindness and compassion from all America. So whine a little less and care a little more.


    Thank you Mary.
    I’ll take your check to pay for all these pathetic little children and put them in your home.
    Until now, it has never been government policy to pay people to come here and take taxpayer dollars to do nothing.


Back when the “pathetic little children” came on their own, there was lots of child labor. That’s not to say that child labor was a good thing! However, they came with the full knowledge that they were going to have to work to survive. The American government did not open the door to thousands and thousands of them, telling them to come on in, we will support you, give you a home and medical help, and anything else you want/need and it will all be paid for with taxpayer money (whether the taxpayers want to or not).


Actually, there was a very large hospital on Ellis Island where immigrants received treatment for a number of diseases, at taxpayer expense, before being allowed to enter the US. You can read about it here:
While waiting on Ellis Island, many of the immigrants also received free vocational training and citizenship education, although some of that was provided by volunteers from organizations such as the DAR. Then, once ashore, the children were immediately eligible to attend public school, also at taxpayer expense.

And, sorry to say, there were many Americans back in those days who directed at our Irish, Italian, Chinese, Polish and Jewish ancestors exactly the same disparaging comments that are being directed at the people coming from Latin America today.


The comments have started me thinking about some of the people who would have been illegal immigrants had today’s laws been in effect when they came here, and what America would have lost had they not been allowed in. Here are my top ten:

(1) Christopher Columbus, born in Italy, sailing under the flag of Spain, the original undocumented alien without whom none of the rest of us might be here at all;
(2) Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian, from whom our country takes its name;
(3) Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko, who designed the fortifications that helped the Americans win the key Battle of Saratoga (considered the turning point of the Revolutionary War), born in Poland;
(4) Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (Mother Cabrini), founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart and numerous institutions serving thousands of sick and poor Americans and also the first American citizen to be officially canonized, born Francesca Saveria Cabrini in Italy;
(5) Joseph Pulitzer, who endowed the Pulitzer Prize and the School of Journalism at Columbia University and was instrumental in raising the funds to build the pedestal supporting the Statue of Liberty, born Pulitzer József in Hungary;
(6) Frank Capra, who gave us those quintessentially American films, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” came to America as a child from Sicily, where he was born Francesco Rosario Capra;
(7) The Transcontinental Railroad, was mostly built by Irish and Chinese laborers;
(8) The system of aqueducts and reservoirs that provide all of New York City’s drinking water was also largely built by Irish immigrant laborers;
(9) George and Ira Gershwin, the Brooklyn-born sons of newly-arrived Russian Jewish immigrants, Moise and Roza Gershowitz, gave us “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Porgy and Bess” and many other standards of the American songbook; and
(10) Irving Berlin, who composed “God Bless America,” was born Isadore Beilin (or Baline) somewhere in Russia.


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