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

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Grade Level:
Fourth Grade-Seventh Grade
History, Social Studies
30 minutes
Group Size:
Up to 36
in the park
National/State Standards:
New York State Learning Standards:
Standard 4: 1B, 1C, 1E
Standard 5: 1B
Standard 4: 1C, 1D, 1E
Standard 5: 1A, 1C


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.



Legal Inspection
Board of Special Inquiry