A sweeping history of “the place where the United States worked out its extraordinary national debate over immigration for over three decades.”
Approximately 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1924, writes Cannato (History/Univ. of Massachusetts, Boston; The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York, 2001). The last immigrant was processed there in 1954, and Ellis Island is now a national monument. The author reaches back to the island’s beginnings in the early 19th century, when, then named Gibbet Island, it served as a venue for hanging convicted pirates. Cannato then chronicles the many different people—immigrants, immigration officials, politicians and others—who made Ellis Island what it was in the early 20th century, delving into the stories of several important individuals lost to mainstream history. These include Prescott Farnsworth Hall, founder of the 19th-century Immigration Restriction League, and Louis Post, who, as acting Secretary of Labor in 1920, prevented the deportation of several individuals during an early Red Scare. Cannato also addresses the long-lasting political debate over immigration in the United States, which was often rooted in economic concerns, particularly during the Depression. In one fascinating section, the author looks at two contradictory 1892 reports, commissioned by Benjamin Harrison’s administration, on the plight of Russian Jewish immigrants. One report discussed in detail how the immigrants came to America to flee brutal persecution, while another claimed they were simply paupers and criminals scheming to take jobs away from “native-born” workingmen. Indeed, such bigotry is an unfortunately common theme. Cannato describes an 1896 editorial cartoon that shows the xenophobia that faced new arrivals—a crude sketch of a sickly immigrant carrying baggage marked “Poverty,” “Disease,” “Superstition” and “Anarchy.” Telling details illuminate the vastness of the immigrant experience. So many people came through Ellis Island in 1906, for example, that “it witnessed 327 deaths, 18 births, 2 suicides, and 508 marriages.”
Ambitious in scope and rooted in solid storytelling.