Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ellis Island Author Puts Today's Immigration Conflicts in Historical Perspective

CHESTERTOWN, MD—A scholar with a keen knowledge and understanding of America’s immigrant past will offer historical perspective on today’s immigration conflicts when he visits Washington College on Wednesday evening, October 20.

Vincent J. Cannato, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Boston and author of American Passage: The History of Ellis Island (HarperCollins, 2009) will speak about immigration in the early 20th century and how it relates to the immigration issues sparking political, social and economic discord a century later. The talk begins at 7:30 p.m. in Litrenta Lecture Hall, John S. Toll Science Center, and is free and open to the public.

“In the current immigration debate, it's often hard to find a broader perspective amid the political soundbites,” said Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, which is sponsoring the event. “But we can look to the past for context, and perhaps even wisdom. We’re not the first generation to argue about issues of citizenship, assimilation, and immigrant workers.”

Cannato will explore the politics and prejudices surrounding one of the largest mass migrations in history, and share stories of the some 12 million people who entered the U.S. through the Ellis Island portal. He also will focus on how a better knowledge of our past as a nation of immigrants can help us analyze and understand the controversies of today.

"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,” he writes in the introduction to American Passage. But that idea “conflicted with the idea that the rights guaranteed in the Constitution were universal rights. How could the Declaration of Independence's basic creed that all individuals were created equal mesh with the idea that some immigrants were desirable and others undesirable? That conflict between American ideals is central to an understanding of why Ellis Island was created in the first place."

Cannato’s book has received rave reviews. The Boston Globe called American Passage “a finely honed account that encompasses both the human story of the immigrant experience, often a sad one, and the political and bureaucratic responses.” The New York Times noted that, “Anyone with a stake or even a fleeting interest in the overhaul of the nation’s immigration policies should read American Passage.”

As a compliment to Cannato’s talk, the Starr Center will lead a free student road trip the following weekend to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. “American Passage: Ellis Island,” is co-sponsored by the Starr Center and the Washington College Office of Multicultural Affairs.

About the C.V. Starr Center

The C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience explores our nation’s history – and particularly the legacy of its Founding era – in innovative ways. Through educational programs, scholarship, and public outreach, and especially by supporting and fostering the art of written history, the Starr Center seeks to bridge the divide between past and present, and between the academic world and the public at large. From its base in the circa-1746 Custom House along Chestertown’s colonial waterfront, the Center also serves as a portal onto a world of opportunities for Washington College students. For more information on the Center and on the Patrick Henry Fellowships, visit

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