On a winter night a hundred years ago, Ellis Island, the twenty-seven-acre patch of land in New York Harbor that had been the gateway to America for millions of hopeful immigrants, was playing the opposite role. It had been turned into a prison for several hundred men, and a few women, most of whom had arrived in handcuffs and shackles. They were about to be shipped across the Atlantic, in the country’s first mass deportation of political dissidents in the twentieth century.
Before dawn on December 21, 1919, the prisoners were roused from their bunks to be packed onto a barge and transported to a waiting vessel, the Buford, which was berthed in Brooklyn. The Buford was an elderly, decrepit troopship, known by sailors as a heavy “roller” in rough seas. One of the two hundred and forty-nine people who were deported that day, Ivan Novikov, described the scene in the island prison: “It was noisy and the room was full of smoke. Everybody knew already that we are going to be sent out. . . . Many with tears in their eyes were writing telegrams and letters.” Many “were in the literal sense of the word without clothes or shoes,” he went on. “There was no laughter.” Then, as now, deportations severed families: “One left a mother, the other a wife and son, one a sweetheart.”
At 4 A.M., with the temperature in the twenties, shouting guards ordered the captives outside, where a gangplank led to the barge and an attached tugboat. “Deep snow lay on the ground; the air was cut by a biting wind,” wrote that day’s most famous victim of what she called “deportation mania,” the Russian-born anarchist and feminist firebrand Emma Goldman. “A row of armed civilians and soldiers stood along the road. . . . One by one the deportees marched, flanked on each side by the uniformed men, curses and threats accompanying the thud of their feet on the frozen ground.”
The mass expulsion was so important to the U.S. government that, despite the hour, a delegation from Washington joined the deportees on the trip across the harbor to the Buford. The group included several members of Congress, most notably Representative Albert Johnson, of Washington State, who was the chair of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization as well as an outspoken anti-Semite, a Ku Klux Klan favorite, and an ardent opponent of immigration. Shepherding the party was a dark-haired, twenty-four-year-old Justice Department official who was quietly respectful toward the dignitaries he was with but who would, before long, wield far more power than any of them: J. Edgar Hoover.