The Magazine

The Golden Door

Ground zero in the 'third wave' of immigration.

Aug 17, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 45 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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American Passage
 
The History of Ellis Island
by Vincent J. Cannato
Harper, 496 pp., $27.99

Ask most Americans what makes the United States distinctive, and what Americans have to teach the world, and they'll answer, "democracy."

That's not wrong; it's just partial. The people of Western Europe, Japan, and many other nations have as much claim as we do to being able to provide examples of democracy and representative government to those in need or want of examples. But anyone who's lived or spent any time abroad can tell you where the United States stands out, or at least has few peers. It has gone farthest in creating that most fragile of civic constructs: a diverse and open society.

Yet getting to such diversity has not been easy or quick, nor is the job ever done. Creating a nation of the people of the entire world who live in relative peace with each other on grounds of legal and civic equality requires flexible laws and institutions, adaptive governments, and perhaps, above all, acceptance of the always-unresolved tensions that stem from living alongside those from whom we differ.

If the United States is farther along in these respects than most other nations, it's because Americans have more experience than most others in creating a country composed of individuals from every corner of the globe. You get a sense of the difficulties in knitting together such a people of peoples in this spirited history of the third of four great phases of voluntary (that is, of nonslave) immigration into what is now the United States.

The colonial era, when Europeans first settled North America, inaugurated American immigration history. The second and largely forgotten stage of European peopling of the continent commenced after 1815 and continued through the Civil War. Composed largely of northern Europeans, this wave of settlers filled the United States with substantial new populations of Irish and Germans, as well as with more people from the British Isles. Vincent Cannato takes up the story when the third wave of immigrants, this one composed largely of people from eastern and southern Europe, began to enter the nation. It's principally the story of the 12 million who arrived on American shores through Ellis Island in New York Harbor.

Even if not always the inspirational story many would like it to be, the tale that unfolded in a few buildings on a tiny piece of land surrounded by water is a saga central to the nation's history and idea of itself. It's also part of the history of the United States as a sovereign nation, for no nation-state has dominion over its own territory unless it can control its borders, and that has never proven easy here.

The story of Ellis Island also belongs to the history of the growth of government itself, for the system used at the nation's gates to evaluate the fitness of immigrants for American life, and to record their entry into the United States, constituted one of the earliest large-scale programs (exceeded only by the Postal Service and Civil War military forces) maintained by the federal government. And as Cannato points out, efforts to control the quality, if not the number, of immigrants fit well within the progressive impulse to end child labor, reduce the political sway of corrupt urban political machines, control the trusts, and improve the lot of the poor. Controlling immigration could be seen by the immigrants' backers, as well as their detractors, as a way of improving American life.

Ellis Island was the center of that effort. Long before the restrictionist legislation of 1924 that put an effective end to mass immigration for 40 years, the federal government sought to screen immigrants for their physical and mental health and to assure itself that an immigrant would not become a "public charge"-that is, not able to find work. The emergence of Europe's downtrodden from their cramped steerage berths into the scrutinizing gaze of immigration officers and physicians in New York harbor has been told so many times around family hearths and in history texts that Ellis Island now stands as a symbol of both the nation's promise and the anxieties immigration still provokes.

Yet contrary to widely held belief, the millions of immigrants who disembarked there-80 percent of those entering the United States between 1892, when Ellis Island opened, and 1954, when it closed-were rarely held long in confinement or subjected to rough treatment. Most remained on Ellis Island for only a few hours; only 2 percent were denied entry into the United States.

For most, the cavernous spaces we now can tour released their residents quickly and efficiently into American life after only the most cursory interview and informal medical assay. While inspectors looked for "undesirables" who were "feeble-minded" or showed "moral turpitude" (code terms for evidence of political radicalism, former prostitution, or criminality), they found comparatively few. In the larger scheme of things, most made it through the net easily, and the United States, despite the best efforts of many fearful and unwelcoming people, became more Jewish and Catholic, more eastern and southern European, than it had been before.

To relate what he calls this "biography .  .  . of a place," Cannato strips Ellis Island of the romance and myths long attached to it. The result is a deeply researched and lively work, as much a history of tragedy, bribery, patronage, nativism, and anti-Semitism as it is of civic service, idealism, aspiration, and care. Where other historians would have been tempted, in the academic conventions of our era, to situate the history of Ellis Island within genealogies of "whiteness studies," or the construction of memory, Cannato takes a more direct, narrative approach. In doing so, he brings alive many aspects of the history overlooked by earlier historians.

Few, for example, will have heard of William Williams, director of Ellis Island in the early years of the 20th century. A shrewd political operator as well as a representative type of the Mugwump Anglo male, Williams sought to limit the inflow of "new" immigrants-those who would reduce, as they eventually did, the sway of "old stock" Americans (that is, those whose roots were in northern Europe). That his efforts were to little avail should not obscure the fact that his views were consonant with those of many other Americans already here.

It is sobering to read the words of the distinguished and influential sociologist E. A. Ross to the effect that "on the physical side the Hebrew are the polar opposites of our pioneer breed. Not only are they undersized and weak-muscled, but they shun bodily activity and are exceedingly sensitive to pain." It was also Ross who wished to raise a monument "to the American Pioneering Breed, the Victim of too much Humanitarianism and too little common sense." Such views were what passed for wisdom in the parlors of the polite and professorial in those days and what led, by 1894, to the founding of the Immigration Restriction League.

Not surprisingly, momentary realities frequently strengthened such prejudice. During the Red Scare that followed World War I, Ellis Island saw its population of alien radicals and "Reds," many of them like the anarchist Emma Goldman subsequently deported, soar. And during the next world war the island again became the temporary home for those suspected of disloyalty. One was the great operatic bass Ezio Pinza, imprisoned there in 1942 for three months for his patriotic support of his distressed Italian homeland. Little could he then know that, a few years later, he would take Broadway by storm in a musical about another island and eventually win a Tony Award for his performance in the role of South Pacific's Emile de Becque.

As so often in the history of American immigration, individual achievement made a mockery of restrictionist efforts.

As Cannato is at pains to relate, stubborn reality-an open door, human desperation, individual aspiration toward betterment, and the need for the labor of arm and mind-usually rendered restrictionist thinking and acts largely irrelevant. If the "science" of eugenics, racial and ethnic prejudice, political fears, and status anxieties colored the nation's immigration history during Ellis Island's heyday, the stories that Cannato has mined from the archives lend that history a larger, personal touch.

We're not surprised that Emma Goldman called Ellis Island "the worst dump I ever stayed in." But we also learn how immigration regulations clashed with life. How were officials, many of them more tender-minded than Williams, to resolve the tragic predicament of a large family, some of whose members were ill: Send them all home or, dividing the healthy from the sick, admit some and send the rest packing?

And we see once again how little sway presidents often have over the nation's affairs. Three chief executives-Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson-actually visited the island. Taft was present at one applicant's hearing and urged that the applicant be admitted. His appeal was heard-then denied. Yet Taft represented the generally permissive attitude that Ellis Island's officials, typical of the majority of Americans, brought to their responsibilities.

"It is hard," Cannato remarks, "to describe Ellis Island as a restrictionist nightmare."

Even after the center closed for good in 1954, it remained a political, ideological, and historical football, and the government almost sold off the island for private development. Since it opened as a tourist center in 1990, it has become a shrine to many, a sore point to others. Even those whose forebears never set foot on the island's shores take it (understandably, in Cannato's view) as symbolic of the travails of immigration and adaptation to a new land-therefore a shrine to the ancestors of us all, save native Americans and African Americans.

But Cannato is less forgiving of those, both left and right, who he believes have gone overboard in their condemnation of Ellis Island piety. John Hope Franklin, for instance, with uncharacteristic lack of empathy, dismissed the island's symbolism as having "nothing to do with me." Yes, but it has much to do with Americans defined as a distinct people. And I'm confident that my late friend and colleague would have conceded the point if I'd asked him whether his comment means that the slavery of his ancestors had nothing to do with me.

In a similar vein, Samuel P. Huntington strained hard to distinguish his Anglo-Saxon ancestors from more recent arrivals by terming his forebears settlers, not immigrants. Yes, but they, too, were seeking better futures, escaping European troubles, and encountering a wilderness as bewildering as any city later on. And I would have asked him whether my German great-grandfather, an immigrant founder of orthopedic medicine in the United States, wasn't as worthy for his pioneering medicine as Huntington's pioneering ancestors-if, that is, they were worthy people to begin with.

While not openly tipping his hand, Cannato is clearly impatient with these arguments. He takes Ellis Island-both the historical immigration entry point that can be depicted and evaluated for what it was and the "national shrine" (Cannato's term) that the restored site has become-as symbolic of the American nation's continuing, complex relationship to new people arriving on its shores. In keeping with his determination to take seriously the site's significance to so many, he brushes aside critics who see it as nothing more than a theme park.

His sympathies, as well as his fidelity to historical fact, also provide one of the book's major surprises: that it was the immigrants themselves (and not so many of them at that) rather than prejudiced or lazy immigration officials who changed their surnames to ones more consonant with shorter, less "foreign-sounding" American names. In Cannato's telling, the immigrants retained the initiative and their individuality most of the time.

Surely he is correct that "the battle over the status of immigrants in a globalized world where borders are increasingly fuzzy will only grow more heated." And there can be little doubt that immigration into the United States-and Canada, which we too often forget has also largely been peopled by those from across the seas-will remain the aspiration of many more millions of people until the rest of the world gets its house in better order. We differ about the significance of Ellis Island because we're in the midst of intense debates about the value and wisdom of immigration in our own era-since 1965, the fourth great era of population inflows. Those differences among us are unlikely soon to be stilled, or Ellis Island to lose its symbolic status in our never-ending effort to define ourselves as a people.

Cannato's wide-ranging history only confirms what we know of our own day. Debates about immigration are never purely about the nation's composition. Instead, they arouse hopes, fears, and attitudes rooted in religion, history, ethnicity, politics, and-never to be forgotten-brute fact. In this era of environmental crisis, for example, one has to ask how long a nation growing short on water, clean air, and other resources can go on absorbing more people, to say nothing of bearing more children on our own. It is a tribute to Vincent Cannato's American Passage that it shows how such concerns have never been far from Americans' minds.

James M. Banner Jr. is a historian in Washington and cofounder of theNational History Center.