Lesson Plan

Board of Special Inquiry

People seated in a courtroom setting with three judges at front with other officials (Photochrom image).
Postcard of Ellis Island's Board of Special Inquiry Hearing Room during a hearing in 1925.
Historisches Museum Bremerhaven


Immigrants who failed the initial inspection at the Great Hall had to undergo a more lengthy interrogation at the Board of Special Inquiry. Immigrants had about ten minutes to convince at least two of three judges they were upstanding individuals who had not committed any crimes. These inspectors acting as judges heard up to two hundred cases each day. In this activity, students will get the chance to play the role of an inspector hearing the pleas of six immigrants.


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • Investigate several reasons to why select immigrant groups were admitted and others were not, according to U.S. immigration policy.
  • Interpret some requirements in federal immigration policy and its impact on newly-arrived immigrants.
  • Analyze how the federal government has used immigration policies to screen individuals arriving to this country.


Immigrants had to pass both a medical inspection and legal inspection before being allowed to enter the United States. During the legal inspection, the inspector would have the ship's manifest in front of him at his desk in the Registry Room. The manifest contained the information to the questions that the immigrants answered at their port of departure. The inspectors would ask the immigrants specific questions from the manifest.

If the inspector felt that the immigrant was lying, the immigrant's story didn't seem quite right, or if the immigrant admitted to certain things (served time in jail, having a job), the immigrant might be detained (like detention) on Ellis Island in a dormitory. Sometimes people were detained due to miscommunication or mistranslations. Immigrants would stay in the dormitory until they could appear before the Board of Special Inquiry in the Hearing Room. They would plead their case and clear up misunderstandings, if any. The immigrant would have to convince the majority of the judges (inspectors) that they had done nothing wrong and could legally enter the United States.


Head to the second floor. On the Southwest end of the building, go through the Through America's Gate exhibit entrance. Proceed to the end of the hall to the room entitled Board of Special Inquiry Hearing Room. Distribute the six-immigrant case studies (see next step or pages 3-4 of the downloadable PDF version).

Immigrant Case Studies:

(pages 3-4 of the downloadable PDF version of the lesson plan)________________________________________

Name: Daniel Pappas
Age: 25
Final Destination: New York City
Have you ever been arrested? No
Do you have a job? Yes
How much money do you have? $26.00


Name: Irene Vacek
Age: 36
Final Destination: Chicago, Illinois
Have you ever been arrested? No
Do you have a job? No
How much money do you have? $10.75


Name: Anthony Santoni
Age: 20
Final Destination: Lowell, Massachusetts
Have you ever been arrested? No
Do you have a job? No
How much money do you have? $25.00


Name: John Moore
Age: 47
Final Destination: Iowa
Have you ever been arrested? Yes
Do you have a job? No
How much money do you have? $27.00


Name: Anna Goldman
Age: 12
Final Destination: New York City
Have you ever been arrested? No
Do you have a job? No
How much money do you have? $5.00


Describe that for many newly-arrived passengers, immigrant processing remained a very difficult task. Immigrants endured a gauntlet of medical examinations, hours of waiting, which concluded with a sixty-second legal inspection to determine whether they can obtain entry to this country. Explain that students today will be playing the role of legal inspectors who get to decide who enters, who is detained, and who might be deported from this country.

Break the class into groups of five people. (Each group will receive one or two case studies, depending on the size of the class). Alternative Assessment: Each group can have two case studies, with one that repeats. Each person in the group will be assigned a role and be asked to consider the following questions:

  • What is your name?
  • How old are you?
  • What is your final destination?
  • Have you ever been arrested?
  • Do you have a job?
  • How much money do you have?

While each group pays careful attention to the case studies, instruct the class…

Remember, to enter America an immigrant:

  • Had to be a law abiding individual
  • Had to have $25 or more
  • Could not have a job

Head back to the Great Hall after visiting the Board of Special Inquiry. Employing the group work protocol, students will be divided into groups of three-to-four to determine whether their immigrant case studies are worthy to enter the country. Each group will be responsible for considering the requirements for entry to the United States, and pay special focus to the historical period. Further, each group will use their visit to help guide them with their responses. A list of three points must be included to support their position.

Review the responses with the students. With time remaining, ask students to consider why the United States installed such requirements to enter the country. Have students think over what are some of the regulations the federal government wants newly-arrived immigrants to have today. (Attached at the end of the document are some federal government regulations).

Optional Class Discussion: Do you think the government has tougher policies today or in the past? Why do you think the federal government found some of these practices to be necessary? Do you think these requirements are fair?

Results for Immigrant Case Studies:

(pages 5-6 of the downloadable PDF version of the lesson plan)


Daniel Pappas would be detained for
further investigation because he had a
job waiting for him in America. He was
violating the Contract Labor Law of 1885.


Irene Vacek would be detained because
she does not have enough money to enter
America. The legal inspectors at Ellis
Island did not want to let anyone into
America that could possibly become a
public charge, a person who was
dependent on the government for support.


Anthony Santoni would be allowed to
enter the country as long as he also
passed his medical inspection. He has
money to support himself while he looks
for a job and is not a criminal. He is
a perfect candidate for entry into America.


John Moore would be detained for further
investigation because of his criminal
past. The legal inspectors did not want
to let any criminals into America. They
only wanted law-abiding individuals.


Anna Goldman would be allowed into
America. Since she was still a child, a
family member who was already living in
America would meet her at Ellis Island.
After being released to her family
member, they would travel together to
their destination.



Legal Inspection
Board of Special Inquiry