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For a country constantly patting itself on the back and touting its unique status as a “nation of immigrants,” the United States has an awfully hard time maintaining a consistent policy—and attitude—toward the millions of people who desperately want to come to the U.S. and join the great, chaotic American experiment.
Today, as the question of whether the United States will seriously address comprehensive immigration reform looms ever larger, and as the country’s racial and ethnic demographics shift more rapidly and more dramatically than at any time in the past century, LIFE.com looks back at a lasting emblem of immigration in the U.S., Ellis Island, through the lens of one of LIFE’s greatest photographers (and a proud immigrant himself), Alfred Eisenstaedt.
Eisenstaedt went out to the island in Upper New York Bay in the fall of 1950 because the rough machinery of politics had once again brought confusion and delay to the processing of thousands of men, women and children looking to step on to American soil. But beyond chronicling the immediately evident impact that political rivalries in Washington were having on real lives a few hundred miles to the north, Eisensteadt’s pictures also uncannily mirror photographs made at Ellis Island decades before.
(By some estimates, a full third of the population of the United States—more than 100 million people—can trace their ancestry to immigrants who first arrived at Ellis Island. Few Americans, meanwhile, recall that both Liberty Island and much of Ellis Island are not in New York, at all, but are instead part of the great state of New Jersey.)
Many of the pictures in this gallery were never published in LIFE magazine. Here, in black and white, are the faces, the clothes and even the dreams and the fears of people who have crossed thousands of miles to get to this very spot—and have been stopped, for the moment, from going any further by the one force capable of thwarting hope: bureaucracy.
Some of the pictures in this gallery appeared in the Nov. 13, 1950 issue of LIFE. The story explained the photos, and the situation on the island, this way:
LIFE then went on the describe the “flood-tide activity” at Ellis that the great photographer Lewis Hine documented in the early 1900s—activity that slowed to a trickle (1,300 a month vs. 3,000 a day in 1906) by the late 1940s—and noted that for the first time in decades, the island was “again full of deeply human scenes.”
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.