Book Review: 'American Passage' by Vincent J. Cannato

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 7, 2009


The History of Ellis Island

By Vincent J. Cannato

Harper. 487 pp. $27.99

Ellis Island, through which 12 million immigrants passed between 1892 and 1924, is a museum and tourist attraction now, "a success," according to Vincent J. Cannato, "attracting some 2 million visitors a year." A small patch of land in New York Harbor, known two centuries ago as Gibbet Island because so many pirates were hanged there, it occupies a large but somewhat ambiguous place in American history. On the one hand, it is deservedly celebrated as the country's gateway, not the only one but the largest and most important. On the other hand, it is the place where a deep conflict in American beliefs has been played out:

"The nation's immigration law was predicated on the idea that a self-governing people could decide who may or may not enter the country. But that idea came into conflict with other ideals such as America's traditional history of welcoming newcomers. More importantly, it conflicted with the idea that the rights guaranteed in the Constitution were universal rights. How could the Declaration of Independence's basic creed that all individuals were created equal mesh with the idea that some immigrants were desirable and others undesirable? That conflict between American ideals is central to an understanding of why Ellis Island was created in the first place."

Obviously, the story of Ellis Island remains pertinent today, for the issues it raises still vex and divide us. In the early years of the 20th century, most immigrants came to the United States from Europe, and the question in the minds of many Americans was whether some of them (British, French, German) were more "desirable" than others (Eastern and Southern Europeans). Now the great wave of immigration is from Latin America, and because many of these people enter the country illegally, the question is whether this makes them "undesirable," even though many of them work productively and contribute to the national economy.

Ellis Island was established as a "sieve" through which immigrants could be filtered, the desirable allowed to enter, the undesirable deported back to their countries of origin. But as became plain from almost the moment it opened, defining "desirable" and "undesirable" was difficult and often caused intense controversy. William Williams, director of Ellis Island for many years, was a WASP aristo who "linked undesirability to southern and eastern Europeans," just as many Bostonians regarded the Irish as undesirable. One blue-blooded New England Yankee, discussing the " 'masses of peasantry' from Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Russia in the 1890s," didn't beat around the bush:

"These people have no history behind them which is of a nature to give encouragement. They have none of the inherited instincts and tendencies which made it comparatively easy to deal with the immigration of olden time. They are beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence. Centuries are against them, as centuries were on the side of those who formerly came to us."

Out of such sentiments grew the Immigration Restriction League, founded in 1894 "to advocate and work for the further judicious restriction or stricter regulation of immigration," i.e., No Italians Need Apply. These and other efforts by Boston Brahmins and their allies stirred up noise and debate but don't seem to have had all that much effect on the decisions made by officials at Ellis Island, who were chiefly preoccupied with questions of physical and mental health, the ability to earn a gainful wage and "moral turpitude," a euphemism for everything from prostitution to adultery to premarital sex. During World War I "alien enemies" -- "any male over the age of fourteen born in Germany, residing in the United States, and not a naturalized U.S. citizen" -- found their rights sharply limited and were at risk of being arrested; after the war, fear of radicals generally, and anarchists specifically, added a new category of "undesirables."

A "recurring theme throughout Ellis Island's history," Cannato writes, is "the chasm between immigration law as written and immigration law as enforced." Or, as he puts it elsewhere, "The immigration problem was a conflict between abstract laws and the individual tragedies those laws sometimes created." It was one thing to deny admission to the "feeble-minded," but quite another when an entire family presented itself for admission and one child was deemed to fit that category. How were officials to respond: Deny admission to the entire family, or admit all save the offending girl? In one such case the second course was chosen, leaving the girl to live out the rest of her life -- how she did so we do not know -- on her own.

Generally, though, Ellis Island tended toward the permissive. Some of those who worked there were bigoted, and many, it seems, were simply incompetent, but Cannato reports numerous instances in which people who were borderline "undesirable" for one reason or another were granted admission on essentially humanitarian grounds. President William Howard Taft, making a visit to the island, found himself caught up in one such case, though his sympathetic response to the immigrant under examination ultimately was overruled by authorities directly responsible.

The immigration center was closed in 1954, by which time a quota system was in effect and overall immigration had declined sharply. Two years later the General Services Administration put the entire 27-acre island up for sale, but reaction against turning over the historic site to private interests -- "the high bidder was a New York builder . . . who wanted to turn Ellis Island into Pleasure Island, a high-end resort with a convention center, marina, and recreational and cultural facilities" -- was strong enough to persuade the Eisenhower Administration to take it off the market. It deteriorated until 1981, when a fund-raising program for its restoration was undertaken, eventually under the leadership of Lee Iacocca, whose parents went through Ellis Island in 1921.

Cannato, who teaches history at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, has written a popular rather than scholarly history of Ellis Island, but he resists the temptation to sentimentalize the place. He understands that, now as then, immigration is an issue that leaves Americans uncomfortable and contentious, even as it continues to bring new blood and energy into the country. Ellis Island may have been converted into something of a feel-good theme park, but the questions it raises remain unresolved.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

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