Book Review: American Passage: The History Of Ellis Island by Vincent J. Cannato


Author: Vincent J. Cannato
TitleAmerican Passage: The History Of Ellis Island
Narrator: Jonathan Hogan
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2009)
Summary/Review:

American Passage offers a comprehensive history of Ellis Island from the 1890s to today.  Cannato’s thesis is that the history of Ellis Island as an immigration inspection station parallels the history of American attempts to restrict immigration.  Prior to Ellis Island opening in 1892, there had been few restrictions against immigration in United States history, with the Chinese Exclusion Act of a decade earlier being the first major restriction legislated by the Federal government.

The opening of Ellis Island itself was part of a Federal immigration reform effort that began with taking over the state immigration inspection station at Castle Garden in 1890.  The move to Ellis Island was prompted by three factors.  One, the need for an isolated location to screen passengers for infectious diseases.  Two, to isolate newly arrived immigrants from the scam artists who gathered around Castle Garden. And three, to similarily keep immigration agents seperate from the temptation of bribery and corruption that occurred in lower Manhattan.

While the earliest exclusions of immigrants were for disease and disability, movements soon grew to agitate for greater restrictions on immigration, often based on prejudice and fearmongering.  Immigrant aid societies often stood up to defend immigrants, there were also a good number of naturalized citizens and descendants of immigrants who saw the current immigrants as inferior.  Much of the discrimination was against immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Laws would be made to exclude immigrants based on political beliefs, the suspicion that an immigrant would become a “public charge,” eugenic ideas of intelligence, and moral turpitude.  Major politicians in both parties seemed to straddle the line between welcoming immigrants and stricter restrictions.  Interestingly, three consecutive Presidents (Roosevelt, Taft, & Wilson) ended up vetoing one of the anti-immigrant crusaders greatest desires, a literacy test. Another interesting reform proposal was to create equality by having all immigrants – not just those from steerage – screened at Ellis Island, but was quickly shot down by the elites from first and second class who did not want to mingle with their “inferiors.”

It should be noted that despite all these efforts to restrict immigration, only 2% of the arrivals at Ellis Island were denied entry.  The lack of staff and resources meant that the flood of immigrants passing through each day received only cursory inspection.  And many of the agents were sympathetic to the new arrivals and did not follow the regulations to the letter of the law.  When eugenecists were conducting research on Ellis Island, the immigration station’s doctors were angered that their research interpreted that natural confusion of immigrants in a stressful situation as a sign of inferior intellectual capacity.

By 1924, the anti-immigration forces pushed quota acts through Congress, ending mass immigration. Around this time, the numbers immigrants crossing the borders of Mexico and Canada began to surpass those entering through New York.  Requiring potential immigrants to go through screening at American consulates in their country of origin, also slowed the number of new arrivals.

For its final three decades of operation, Ellis Island served primarily as a detention center.  Noted anarchist Emma Goldman spent her last days in America at Ellis Island before deportation.  Suspected Axis sympathizers – primarily German-American – were rounded up in the early days of the United States entry into World War II.  During the Cold War it would hold communists, or those suspected of communist sympathies.  Ellis Island closed as an immigration and detention center in 1954 as the United States entered into a period of low immigration.

The buildings on Ellis Island fell to ruin over the ensuing decades with various proposals for what to do with the island put forth from time to time.  One of the more interesting ideas came from an organization of African American capitalists who hoped to use the island as a utopian community to help recovering addicts and criminals prosper by producing goods for sale.  The Nixon administration gave a lot of support to the idea as a way that Republicans could make connections with Blacks in a way that was opposite to the Great Society reforms.

Ellis Island would eventually be renovated as kind of a side project of Lee Iacocca’s public-private partnership to renovate the Statue of Liberty for its centennial in 1986.  Cannato discusses the efforts to make a proper museum and shrine that places Ellis Island in its proper historical context.  The idea that immigration is a shared part of American heritage is one that is questioned by people descended from indigenous peoples, those brought to America by force and enslaved, and even Anglo-Saxon Americans who see their ancestors as “settlers” rather than immigrants.

I thought this book was an interesting overview of Ellis Island, although it does have a top down focus.  Cannato offers a lot of detail about the careers of the directors of Ellis Island and the actions of various politicians and elites from Presidents on down.  I would like to also read a book that offers more of the perspective of immigrants passing through Ellis Island, and those detained for longer periods, as well as the everyday employees.  I think that would make a good complement to this otherwise excellent history.

Recommended booksThe Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice by Chad Millman, Five Points by Tyler Anbinder
Rating: ****

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