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.