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Ellis Island immigrants

Guadeloupean woman, German stowaway, Alsace-Lorraine girl. (Photography by Augustus Sherman/New York Public Library)

Ellis Island immigrants: Portraits by Augustus Sherman, circa 1905-1914

President Donald Trump reiterated his demands for immigration reform during a bipartisan meeting with lawmakers on Tuesday, saying any bill to address young immigrants brought to the United States illegally must also provide a border wall.

Trump, speaking to reporters as he convened the group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the White House, said he wants a bipartisan fix and believes both sides will negotiate in good faith on the issue.

Over a century ago as immigration to the United States swelled, the Ellis Island immigration station opened in New York harbor in 1900. By 1907, the peak year of immigration, 3,000 to 5,000 newcomers a day were examined at Ellis Island as they sought permanent entry to the country.

Many photographers were drawn to Ellis Island by the general human interest and newsworthiness of the scene. One amateur photographer, Augustus Sherman, a registry clerk at Ellis Island, had special access to potential subjects for his camera. It is possible that William Williams, then the commissioner of immigration for the port of New York at Ellis Island, requested that Sherman photograph specific individuals and groups. It is also likely that Sherman’s elaborately costumed subjects were detainees, new immigrants held at Ellis Island for one reason or another. While waiting for what they needed to leave the island (an escort, or money, or travel tickets), some of these immigrants may have been persuaded to pose for Sherman’s camera, donning their best holiday finery or national dress, which they had brought with them from home.

Sherman’s photographs were published in National Geographic in 1907 and for decades hung anonymously in the lower Manhattan headquarters of the federal Immigration Service. Incoming correspondence in the William Williams Papers, bequeathed to the New York Public Library, suggests that the commissioner gave copies of Sherman’s haunting photographs to official Ellis Island visitors as mementos. (Reuters/New York Public Library)

Photography by Augustus Sherman/New York Public Library

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