In the 19th and early 20th century, during the high point of immigration to Ellis Island, Anti-immigrant advocates looked for ways to limit the number of immigrants coming to the United States. While the Chinese Exclusion Act attempted to reduce the number of Chinese immigrants, leaders of organizations like the Immigrant Restriction League and others, sought to limit immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe as well. They argued that Jews and Italians were inferior. To support their arguments, they often relied on Eugenics, ideas long since dismissed by mainstream scientists, that some groups of people were more morally and intellectually fit than others. Those groups were constructed by people who claimed some races were superior to others.
Eugenic ideas were promoted by many leading scientists and supported by many political leaders. One place they sought to put their ideas into practice was at Ellis Island. They created tests that they believed would prove their prejudices and could be used to keep out immigrants that they saw as unfit. Scholars look back on many of these tests and recognize that built-in cultural biases made many of the tests bad measures of intelligence. The following story from National Public Radio explores this history by focusing on the puzzle test. NPR reporters explain, “Historians at Smithsonian Magazine say this simple puzzle containing facial features broken into pieces was administered to immigrants at Ellis Island in the early 1900s. The goal was to weed out the “feeble-minded” and ensure that a “better class” of foreign-born people was ushered into U.S. citizenship.” Listen below.