Detained Passenger at Ellis Island

The National Archives estimates “Between 1892 and 1924, ten percent or more of arriving immigrants were detained every day for a BSI [Board of Special Inquiry] hearing.”

A researcher inquired about his ancestor’s entry labeled ‘detained’ on a 1901 Ellis Island passenger record. The research question was “Does this mean he was a stowaway?”

While stowaways were indeed detained, there were many other reasons an individual would not be immediately granted entrance to the United States. 

IMAGE: ELLIS ISLAND, c. 1910 New immigrant awaiting examination at Ellis Island. Photograph, c. 1910, Granger / Bridgeman Images, (undetermined copyright) (https://www.bridgemanimages.com : viewed 15 July 2023.)

Persons could be detained at Ellis Island for a variety of reasons including 

  • Medical issues
  • Likely to become a public charge
  • Unaccompanied minor
  • Known anarchists 
  • Quotas
  • Restrictions for emigrants of a specific country, depending on the time period. 

Some detainees are returned to their homeland. Others may be processed successfully later, as in one case of two children detained as was their mother until her illness was resolved. 

Emma Goodwin describes the Ellis Island Registry Room, Public Health doctors, hospital wards, and legal political concerns in her undated post “Immigration and Deportation at Ellis Island” published by PBS American Experience

See: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/goldman-immigration-and-deportation-ellis-island/

Much can be learned about an ancestor’s detainment including how many meals he was served during detainment. For a quick overview see Ellis Island’s “Search Tips and Tricks” page 12 for more info about ‘detained passengers.’ https://www.statueofliberty.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Passenger-Search-TipsTricks-1.pdf

For a review of one family’s ‘no boat’ detainment, see Stephen Danko’s “Detained Passengers and the Board for Special Inquiry” posted 10 June 2020 on Steve’s Genealogy Blog. See: https://stephendanko.com/blog/269

The National Archives estimates “Between 1892 and 1924, ten percent or more of arriving immigrants were detained every day for a BSI [Board of Special Inquiry] hearing.” See “INS Boards of Special Inquiry (BSI) Records” https://www.archives.gov/research/immigration/boards-of-special-inquiry

The National Archives landing page for immigration record states “Although some of these records have been digitized and made available online, there are many records that are only available in paper or microfilm format at NARA locations.” The scope of records includes immigration, naturalization, alien files, enemy alien records, and passport records. See: https://www.archives.gov/research/immigration

Please note that the US Citizenship and Naturalization Service (USCIS) History Office and Library is tasked with “researching, writing, and preserving the history of federal immigration and naturalization services, from 1891 to today.” See: https://www.uscis.gov/about-us/our-history/history-office-and-library

If your ancestor was deported or excluded, the USCIS advises “not all deportation and exclusion records survive. If, however, the event occurred after 1892 there is a chance records may still exist.” See: https://www.uscis.gov/records/genealogy/genealogy-notebook/researching-deportation-records


Discovering info about your immigrant ancestor’s arrival experience is more than spotting his name on a passenger record. Take the time to discover what records were created and where to find them in digital, microfilm and paper format.

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