Commentary Magazine

American Passage, by Vincent J. Cannato

American Passage:

The History of Ellis Island

By Vincent J. Cannato

HarperCollins, 487 pages, $27.99

For most of us, Ellis Island, a tiny scrap of dirt and rock in upper New York Harbor, once a hanging ground for pirates, is a proud symbol of immigrants’ striving and ultimate triumph. “Hard work, the dignity of labor, the fight for what’s right”—these were the words that best reflected Ellis Island’s spirit, the auto executive Lee Iacocca once enthused. His own parents were among the millions of new arrivals—most of them Jews or Southern European Catholics—who first reached American soil by passing through the island’s inspection gateway during the first quarter of the 20th century. It was one of the great migrations in human history.

In American Passage, his comprehensive new history of Ellis Island, Vincent Cannato acknowledges the myriad beneficial ways in which this dramatic population shift remade America. But Cannato is an unsentimental observer. The reality of Ellis Island, he shows, was messy and all too human, marked by frequent official incompetence and graft, authorities riven with conflict, and occasional tragedy. At the deepest level, Ellis Island embodied the tensions that remain at the heart of the immigration debate. “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,” Cannato writes. But how best to reconcile that ideal with America’s tradition of welcoming newcomers or the universal rights in our founding documents?

Ellis Island opened for business on January 1, 1892; its purpose was to serve as a filter separating desirable from undesirable immigrants. Cannato sees immigration control as an expression of the spirit of Progressive reform prevalent around the turn of the 20th century, as the United States became a modern industrial state. “The impulse,” he observes, “was the same impulse that banned child labor, regulated railroads and monopolies, opened settlement houses, created national parks, battled the corruption of urban political machines, and advocated for temperance.” Yet deciding whom to admit and whom to deny proved difficult.

Several broad concerns about immigrants motivated political leaders and Ellis Island authorities when wrestling with this issue, Cannato argues. First, newcomers should not become “public charges,” which in a pre-welfare-state era meant being dependent on private alms. Immigrants were supposed to work—and in an exploding industrial and manufacturing economy, physical vigor was a must, so the immigration filter should catch and turn back “the sickly, weak, or mentally deficient.” Dark hereditary fears also haunted many officials and civic leaders, to say nothing of the broader public: would these wrenchingly poor alien arrivals, many of swarthy complexions, weaken the (largely Northern European) American racial stock?

Fear of immigrants briefly rose to fever pitch with the early arrival at Ellis Island of the Massilia, a steamship bearing Italian émigrés, Russian Jews fleeing czarist oppression, and the horrific ailment called typhus. Authorities didn’t detect the illness among the Jewish passengers—the Italians were unaffected, having had separate accommodations on the ship—until they had passed inspection and arrived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where boarding houses soon became sick houses. New York health officials quarantined approximately 1,000 people, including all the Jewish Massilia immigrants, on North Brother Island, off the Bronx coast, dampening the outbreak within a month.

The final death toll was just 45, but the crisis strengthened the position of immigration foes like Boston Brahmin Prescott Hall, who formed the Immigration Restriction League in 1894. Hall and his allies vociferously argued that all the Jews and Italians and other Southern Europeans flooding into the country would bring more plagues, and greater crime, too, if their numbers were not sharply regulated.

Yet despite the widespread anxiety about the population surge, Ellis Island proved an open entryway. As Cannato notes, during the first three decades of the facility’s existence, eight out of 10 immigrants immediately won admission, and 98 percent ultimately made it to America. Roughly 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island during this tumultuous period. Ellis Island’s gates would remain wide open under ostensibly restrictionist commissioners like William Williams and extremely tolerant commissioners like Robert Watchorn, as well as under competent, decent inspectors and corrupt and abusive ones. A growing nation’s need for new workers and American ideals of openness kept the restrictionists at bay and public fears in check.

President Theodore Roosevelt’s immigration stance reflected both the anxiety and the openness. In 1902, Roosevelt seemed sympathetic to the restrictionists, calling for the weeding out of immigrants of “low moral tendency” and “unsavory reputation.” Five years later, though, he was emphasizing the positive: “Not only must we treat all nations fairly, but we must treat with justice and good will all immigrants who come here under the law. Whether they are Catholic or Protestant, Jew or Gentile; whether they come from England or Germany, Russia, Japan, or Italy, matters nothing.” Cannato sums up the president’s “straddle”: “In his openness to ethnic and religious groups, he satisfied immigrants and their defenders. In his rhetorical concerns about the quality of new immigrants, he satisfied restrictionists, but at the end of the day all of his talk about restriction was little more than bluster.”

Ellis Island’s flow of new arrivals would slow dramatically in the 1920s as the public, wary of European mores and radicalism after the butchery of World War I, became more hostile to immigration. Congress passed strict country-of-origin quotas on new arrivals, ending the island’s ostensible raison d’etre as an immigration filter. “The era of mass immigration was effectively ended,” Cannato explains.

The Great Depression put further downward pressure on immigration. By the early 30s, the number of people leaving America was three times greater than the number arriving. Ellis Island served chiefly as a detention center for enemy aliens during World War II and for noncitizen radicals during the Cold War. One detainee in 1952, Cannato recounts, was the Marxist literary critic C.?L.?R. James, who wrote a book on Herman Melville while waiting for the adjudication of his case; he wound up back in Britain, deported. In 1954 the government shuttered Ellis Island, recognizing that the facility had lost its rationale for being.

The grounds fell into disrepair, even outright “rot,” Cannato says, and it wasn’t until the 1980s and a new period of mass immigration that the nation began to pay attention to the island again—now as “a new Plymouth Rock,” a symbol of America’s immigrant experience. Iacocca helped lead a philanthropy drive that resulted in parts of the island reopening as a museum of immigration. Ellis Island has become a significant tourist draw, with 2 million visitors a year.

American Passage is thick with detail on Ellis Island’s day-to-day operations. Everything is in here, from groundskeeping to political infighting, so much so that some readers might find themselves bogged down. Thankfully, Cannato, who teaches history at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and is the author of a previous book on New York Mayor John Lindsay, enlivens his text with deft profiles of the officials, advocates, and immigrants whose lives intersected with Ellis Island. An elegant writer, he restrains from excessive editorializing, so that even those he clearly disagrees with, such as the nativist Hall, come off somewhat sympathetically.

Cannato remains stubbornly neutral about our own immigration debates but warns against using the past too freely to win points in them. That’s sensible advice, since today’s immigrants, disproportionately from Mexico and other south-of-the-border nations, arrive in a very different economy from the one that greeted their early-20th-century predecessors—an economy that values education and skills that many of them lack. Regardless of one’s views on immigration policy, American Passage tells an important story—a story now inseparable from our sense of national identity—and tells it well.

About the Author

Brian C. Anderson is senior editor of City Journal and the author of South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.