Journalist and historian Vincent J. Cannato’s American Passage: The History of Ellis Island is about an uncertain chapter in America’s past, one most people might automatically deem unfair or at least depressing. But, as the saying goes: it is what it is. When put into its proper context, as Cannato sure-handedly does, Ellis Island’s desultory existence emerges as a functional, if flawed, reality of its time, when millions of immigrants sought wholesale entry into the U.S.

The huddled masses yearning to be free certainly figure into Cannato’s narrative, but they’re only the pawns in the game. We don’t get to them for a while anyway, as the author first offers an overview of New York Harbor’s island system, plus background on what was formerly known as Gibbet Island, used as a place for hanging pirates in the early 19th century and later as a munitions depot. Immigration was handled loosely back then, but as the influx of Europeans to the Land of Liberty increased heading toward the 20th century, so did point-of-entry corruption and exploitation, not to mention Anglo-Saxon xenophobia and nativist fears about diseased, lunatic, criminal and poverty-stricken aliens infiltrating the shores. (On the other hand, big business was licking its chops at the prospect of cheap labor. Sound familiar?)

Indeed, 12 million immigrants washed through Ellis Island’s portals from 1892 to 1924, and Cannato trenchantly outlines the political, administrative and public policy ideas behind its operation, while also introducing readers to a host of government officials heretofore little-known, such as longtime Ellis Island commissioner William Williams, who was a stickler when it came to “tightening the sieve that would strain out larger numbers of undesirable immigrants.” There are sad stories about Ellis Island, some recounted here. Some folks were sent back from whence they came, some died in detention, sometimes families were split up. But much of the anecdotal reportage only seems to reinforce with some logic the notion that, faced with an onslaught of potential new citizens, any government might want to rightfully process them systematically. (And by the way, Cannato says Ellis Island officials did not change people’s names; they hardly had time enough to deal with all the human bodies and the appropriate settlement issues. Most immigrants who changed their names did so later on of their own accord or at the urging of relatives or friends.)

After World War I, and with immigration on the decline, the U.S. turned to the so-called consulate system for screening newcomers, which rendered Ellis Island generally irrelevant, though it continued to function through the years as a detention center, including during World War II and the Cold War. In the 1950s, it went up for sale. Finding no takers at the government’s asking price, and after a few more decades of federal indecision, it finally was remade into a museum in 1990, now attracting two million visitors a year.

Rather than tug at heartstrings about the great melting pot experience, American Passage focuses instead on delivering a well-written and thoroughly researched text about the workings of a uniquely historical bureaucracy, the development and reform of early immigration law, the sociopolitical impulses that fueled a teeming era—and a strange little island whose place in our history is now only a faraway memory.

Martin Brady writes from Nashville.

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