Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Part 2 - Detainee Health Care Spotlight - PHS & Ellis Island

Is this squeeky clean picture of Ellis Island what immigrants saw upon arriving in the United States?

Or is this picture of the same room closer to the truth?

In part two and three of this spotlight on detainee health care we will focus on Public Health Services (PHS). We will examine some of the reasons why immigrants and detainees might not have faith in PHS's provided medical care based on documented historical evidence from PHS's past.

At the Stewart Detention Center (Lumpkin, GA) detainee health care services are provided by the United States government through the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. PHS is a health care provider at many Detention Centers (and also Federal Prisons) in the United States. Public Health Service is a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Public Health Services has a long history of being involved in immigration matters. In 1891 PHS took over the medical processing of all immigrants entering the United States at Ellis Island and at other immigration entry points to the United States. Historical evidence exists that PHS practices involved a sort of "racial totem pole" in which certain races were believed to be more desirable than others. Immigration medical standards therefore varied depending on the racial identity of the immigrant and his or her perceived racial worth to the United States. The methods used by PHS were apparently based on scientific racism (scientific racism is a ridiculous and unprovable belief that science can somehow show that one race is scientifically/genetically superior to others). Based on this belief the medical examination procedures used by PHS at Ellis Island were different for immigrants based on the immigrants race. Some races were prejudged to be more prone to unwanted diseases and mental health illnesses.

Class also influenced immigration practices as wealthy immigrants were not required to undergo physical medical exams to the same extent as the poor or people judged to be at the bottom tier of the immigration pool. Wealthy immigrants usually bypassed Ellis Island altogether and were disembarked at the port of New York. Immigrants sent to Ellis Island were herded through a bizarre system of cages, fences and pens (much like pigs and cows on a farm). These immigrants were issued health tickets which were filled out by PHS personnel. If unwanted medical conditions were observed then the immigrants clothes were marked with chalk.

To me PHS's early beliefs in an unofficial view of racial and class superiority are somewhat a product of the times. However racism itself is timeless. Ignorance like this can never simply be forgiven based upon the time period in which it was packaged and disseminated. Racism is not a bag of potato chips, it has no best used by date. I also feel that people need to know and understand the real truth of what Ellis Island represented to some immigrants. Without understanding the errors of the past we can not learn anything from them. In the next part of this series we will examine a more current event from Public Health Service's history which is not nearly as forgivable.

A detailed American Medical Association Journal of Ethics article on the scientific racism methods used by Public Health Services at Ellis Island can be found here.

It is worth noting that scientific racism is a belief that in current times many racist white power groups cling to. No doubt this is influenced by Adolf Hitler's own beliefs in this non-science nonsense with his own belief in a white master race.

A Southern Poverty Law Center report from 1999 on scientific racism can be found here.

"Aliens or Americans" by Howard B. Grose(originally published in 1906) A book on Ellis Island/immigration is available on the net here.

(above) Picture of a medical quarantine cell used at Ellis Island.

(above) Picture of the chutes and cages that immigrants were moved from as they were separated for medical tests and observations. (A) Entrance stairs; (B) Examination of health ticket; (C) Surgeon's examination; (D) Second surgeon's examination; (E) Group compartments; (F) Waiting for inspection; (G) Passage to the stairway; (H) Detention room; (I) The Inspectors' desks; (K) Outward passage to barge, ferry, or detention room.