Portal of Dreams Ellis Island History

June 26, 2009 at 4:19 pm Leave a comment

Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court has touched off renewed debate over cultural assimilation, identity politics and even immigration policy—although the judge’s parents, natives of Puerto Rico, were U.S. citizens at birth. A National Review columnist took issue with the way she pronounces her last name. Others have labeled her affection for Puerto Rican cuisine and her enthusiastic self-identification as a Latina as insufficiently American.

William Williams would have recognized the tenor of this debate. Williams was the controversial head gatekeeper at Ellis Island during the opening years of the 20th century, a time when newcomers with strange names, foods and ideas were transforming the nation’s cities and threatening America’s long-held self-image as an Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation. Williams saw it as his duty to prevent, as best he could, a demographic revolution that might overwhelm those who considered themselves the guardians of the nation’s racial purity.

Today’s debate over culture and identity may seem as fresh as a cable-news talk show, but as Vincent J. Cannato reminds us in “American Passage,” his history of Ellis Island, Americans have been arguing —fiercely—about these issues for a long time. That insight, while important, should not surprise even the minimally informed. But Mr. Cannato, who teaches U.S. history at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, also notes that despite the attitudes of powerful people like Williams, despite the fears of Anglo-Saxon supremacists, despite the dire warnings of Progressive eugenicists, Ellis Island truly did became the equivalent of an E-Z Pass lane for millions of immigrants, including more than 143,000 blacks, from 1892 to 1924, the prime years of the island’s working life. More than 98% of those who landed at Ellis Island were admitted, most after a very cursory interview and examination.

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Ellis Island’s Great Hall, or registry room, in 1905.
The ease of entry into the U.S. a century ago “speaks to the powerful legal, political, social, economic, and ideological consensus that allowed America to accept millions of new immigrants despite the grumbling of those made uneasy by the disruptions that this human wave brought,” Mr. Cannato writes.

The transformation of Ellis Island’s reputation, from outsize immigrant-processing center to a warm and fuzzy American icon, would have surprised newcomers and gatekeepers alike. Many immigrants deplored conditions on the island. Officials like Williams despised the people pouring into the reception hall every day. The Russian-born anarchist Emma Goldman, who spent time on the island before being deported in 1919, described it as the “worst dump I ever stayed in.”

Before the federal government took over control of immigration in the 1890s, Ellis Island was just another piece of real estate in New York Harbor, a place where convicted pirates were dispatched to the gallows in the 1820s. It was called Gibbet Island back then. Immigrants to New York alighted at Castle Garden, just off today’s Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan. When the feds decided to assume control of immigration policy in the early 1890s, New York’s portal was moved from Castle Garden to a little island in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, which had been in place for only a few years.

“The specter of Ellis Island haunted not just those newly arrived immigrants awaiting inspection but also those who managed to land initially who could be threatened with deportation for three years after.”
Read an excerpt from “American Passage: The History of Ellis Island”
A medical doctor in New York, A.J. McLaughlin, described the new immigration facility as a place “for sifting the grain from the chaff . . . a sieve fine enough in the mesh to keep out the diseased, the pauper, and the criminal while admitting the immigrant with two strong arms, a sound body and a stout heart.” The first person to meet these qualifications was Annie Moore, a 15-year-old girl from County Cork, Ireland, who landed at Ellis on Jan. 1, 1892. Some 12 million souls would follow in her footsteps.

Who were they? They were southern and eastern Europeans, meaning they were, for the most part, Jews and Catholics, as one immigration opponent made clear. “To hell with Jews, Jesuits and steamships,” wrote Prescott Hill, an indefatigable opponent of immigration who saw the steamship companies in league with the undesirables passing through Ellis Island every day.

 “American Passage”
By Vincent J. Cannato
Harper, 487 pages, $27.99
Ellis Island quickly became the country’s leading inspection center and the focal point of the national debate over immigration. Three consecutive presidents — Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson — visited the island to investigate conditions for themselves. All three tried to straddle the debate, Roosevelt most successfully. Mr. Cannato offers sympathetic portraits of the three presidents as they sought to come to terms with an outright cultural war, which exclusionists saw as nothing less than a battle for the nation’s identity. He also devotes entire chapters to the means by which immigration foes sought to put up barriers to entry. They pushed for literacy tests, probed for evidence of what was called “moral turpitude,” and they tried to apply the junk science of the day — eugenics — in an effort to keep out those judged “feeble-minded.”

None of it worked, although Mr. Cannato gives considerable space to individual men and women who were denied justice at Ellis Island—men, women and whole families barred for no good reason. But they were a tiny minority.

Mr. Cannato’s writing is vivid and accessible, and his approach is admirably even-handed. Still, he could hardly resist skewering his leftist colleagues who dismiss the restored Ellis Island museum as nothing more than a theme park for white ethnics whose ancestors embraced rather than resisted the oppressive capitalist order.

The author also dismantles the notion that foreign-sounding names were changed wholesale by sneering customs officials. “Names were not changed at Ellis Island,” he writes. Inspectors, he notes, rarely wrote down the names of would-be immigrants. (The newly arrived tended to change their names themselves, in their eagerness to assimilate.) The immigrants’ foreign-sounding names may have offended the inspectors, but the officials kept the door open. In doing so, they, too, helped to create an American landmark strong enough to withstand skeptics and deconstructionists alike.

—Mr. Golway, the author of “The Irish in America,” teaches U.S. history at Kean University in Union, N.J.


Wall Street Journal

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