Justice  /  Debunk

Ellis Island's Forgotten Final Act as a Cold War Detention Center

The idealistic interpretation of Ellis Island should be revisited.
Library of Congress

On November 17, 1950 famed Hungarian-born violinist Joseph Szigeti arrived in New York City to begin an American concert tour. Szigeti was no stranger to the United States, having already toured the U.S. over two dozen times. But within minutes of his arrival, immigration officials removed him from his ship and delivered the bad news—the U.S. Department of Justice had refused his admission into the United States. Officials quickly carted Szigeti to a detention site familiar to nearly all Americans—a 27.5 acre piece of land in Upper New York Bay known as Ellis Island.

“It makes me a prisoner,” the bewildered 58-year-old musician, a California resident for the previous nine years, told the New York Times, “What have I done?”

At the time, Szigeti’s case was far from exceptional. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ellis Island became a de facto prison for an improbable mix of immigrants, visitors, displaced persons, political dissidents, and refugees from across the globe. Caught up in the sweeping paranoia of the Cold War, the majority of Ellis Island’s denizens were suspected communists, incarcerated at the immigration port while the United States undertook lengthy, and often secretive, reviews of evidence against them. 

These immigrants and foreign nationals remained trapped on Ellis Island for months and even years. And much like Szigeti, many never knew the exact charges against them or the specific evidence the Immigration and Naturalization Service used to detain them. As Szigeti’s lawyer reported, they had no idea what was in the Department of Justice files, making it particularly difficult to craft a defense of their client. This pattern of restricted civil liberties was born in the World Wars, but found surprising staying power as the United States entered the 1950s and confronted new ideological demons.

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