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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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.