American Passage: The History of Ellis Island

In This Review

American Passage: The History of Ellis Island
By Vincent J. Cannato
HarperCollins, 2009
496 pp. $27.99
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This brisk and accessible book summarizes the policies and controversies over U.S. immigration between 1892 and 1954, when Ellis Island was used to process immigrants to the United States and/or hold those scheduled for deportation. As Cannato explains, the island was not just part of the story of immigration; it was also part of the story of the expansion of the federal government and the development of the progressive, bureaucratic state. After 1891, when the federal government replaced the states as the regulators of immigration, federal inspectors, faced with thousands of new arrivals each week, had to translate vague congressional mandates into concrete policies and then defend the consequences of their decisions in a contentious political environment. Cannato is particularly successful at showing the influence of the progressive movement on both the creation and the implementation of changing immigration law. Not all of American Passage is equally useful; most readers will be more interested in Ellis Island in its heyday than after 1924, when much more restrictive immigration laws came into force, and Cannato's accounts of the squabbles among Ellis Island bureaucrats are perhaps a little more comprehensive than most readers need. Still, the subject is important enough and Cannato's treatment fresh enough that anyone with an interest in immigration or progressive politics will want to consult it.