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“The Only Acceptable Immigrant”: Some Historical Perspective for the Fearful and Hard-Hearted

That we in the US have a limited historical memory is something that is widely and tacitly acknowledged.

In a 1921 article in Good Housekeeping by then Vice President-elect Calvin Coolidge, he described the “only acceptable immigrant” as “one who can justify our faith in man by a constant revelation of the divine purpose of the Creator.” Those who were racially “divergent” who “do not mix or blend,” the “idle,” “the shiftless” and “the good-for-nothing” are not welcome. He asserted that “the retroactive immigrant is a danger,” and that “he needs to be deported.” This was at a time when new Americans were associated with extremist ideology and terrorism. It was just a short time after the notorious Palmer Raids of 1920, where roughly 6,000 people were rounded up and held without formal criminal charges. Operating on the assumption that “Fully 90 percent of the Communist and anarchist agitation is traceable to aliens,” Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer deported hundreds of immigrants suspected of subversive activities. Such measures and language may seem dismally familiar. However, the “aliens” in question were simply the Irish, Italian, German, Polish, Russian, Jewish, etc. ancestors of many first-, second- and third-generation Americans today, many of whom are callously subjecting today’s “retroactive” groups to comparably unfair judgment and discrimination.

That we in the US have a limited historical memory is something that is widely and tacitly acknowledged. It’s even joked about. Viewers of late night talk show segments or YouTube videos shared on social media laugh it up as they watch clips of average “‘Muricans” struggle to remember the names of past presidents and identify who fought in particular wars.

It’s easy to feel hopeless when reading blogs, Facebook posts and tweets, as kids and grandkids of ethnic European immigrants wholeheartedly express their support for the recent executive orders of the Trump administration, which restrict immigration from the seven countries identified as “areas of concern.” I’m astonished that the reactionary and divisive rhetoric of the administration and rationale behind the orders are being parroted and promoted so enthusiastically.

Furthermore, citing worry for national security or their own safety, many have voiced their backing of the suspension of the refugee program, which plainly and simply halts the flow of adults and children who are fleeing certain death. Support for these measures reflects, at best, complicity with, and at worst, the embrace of a dangerous nationalism and fear, as well as hostility toward the “other.” This is, in part, generated by grossly exaggerated claims of the danger that they present. However, it also illustrates immense historical amnesia in relation to the conditions in which their own parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. came to the US and the hostile nativism and bigotry they endured.

The most recently leaked Trump executive order reportedly would deport legal immigrants who utilize social services. If real, and the last several leaks have been borne out in terms of their credibility, it would be yet another troubling illustration of the Trump administration (and we’re just a few weeks in) tapping into the current of public insecurity to bolster their political credibility. Additionally, it would further reinforce the ideology that the continued erosion of the social safety net is good public management.

My own family (on my mother’s side) is Italian. The basis of this more recently leaked order, i.e. using existing anti-immigrant feelings as a backdoor austerity strategy, reminded me of how critics of the New Deal more or less did the same in the 1930s and 1940s. My Italian immigrant grandparents benefited from New Deal programs, in particular the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which subsidized employment for those out of work to ease their economic burden during the Great Depression. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, the WPA was increasingly seen by more privileged and native-born Americans as a work program for “bums, drunks, and aliens.”

I learned of my grandfather’s participation when doing a project for an immigration history course I took in college. While interviewing my mother about her parents’ immigration story, she recollected that if “Grandpop” wasn’t “put to work in the WPA, we would’ve starved.” His livelihood, at least for a time, was dependent upon taxpayer dollars. He, his wife and children had become — to use the language of Trump’s leaked order — a “public charge.” Immigrant eligibility for the WPA continued to be tightened as anti-immigrant demagogues of the day and opponents of the New Deal politicized their participation. Theirs is not a unique story, as (in 1936, for example) nearly 19 percent of WPA participants were “aliens,” 12.8 percent of which were “aliens without papers.” However, even at that time, the menace of fascism in Italy, the political climate was such that my Italian grandparents were not subject to the threat of deportation.

Narratives about the Italian immigrant experience often tell romanticized stories of hard work endured by good people who believed in the “American Dream.” They were God-fearing, joined the military and fought in the great wars, and largely adhered to the letter of the law. With the exception of the Mafioso stereotype — which still conforms to the US’s glorification of rugged capitalism and gangsterism — Italian-Americans were the incarnation of a model immigrant fairy tale by the end of the 20th century. However, as with most things, the history is far more complicated, and aspects of it are analogous to the rigors faced by today’s immigrants. I’m not saying that they are the same or prescribing a particular strategy for social integration or success. I’ll leave that to the moralists and ideologues. Rather, I point this out because the descendents of turn-of-the-century European immigrants should know better than to support the hateful rhetoric and immigration policies of the Trump administration, as they target individuals and families whose lives, stories and experiences are no less valid than their grandma’s or grandpa’s. There are comparable histories which apply to other ethnic immigrants in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Southern Italians in particular differed from earlier European immigrants due to their appearance, prompting descriptions like “swarthy” and slurs like “Guinea” or “mongrel.” Historically, and like with other groups, economic security and social acceptance were contingent on the adoption of dominant culture values. For Italians, this also included the experience having to integrate themselves into the fabric of a white society which had, up until then, shunned and marginalized them. Adherence to basic pluralistic and democratic principles would mean that today’s newcomers would not have to undergo those same indignities. However, the prevailing perspective regarding immigration policy typifies the white nationalism of Trump and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon.

Italian-Americans should remember that their early forebears were not only regarded as “alien” in relation to appearance and custom, but also in relation to religious belief and practice. Their brand of Catholicism was regarded as strange and objectionable. It was perceived as having “pre-Christian” elements, such as the polytheism-like emphasis on patron saints, folk superstitions and “sorcery” (e.g. the “malocchio” or “evil eye”). Early Italian immigrants were also associated with terrorism. Up until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the 1920 Wall Street bombing, which killed 38 people, had been the deadliest terrorist attack in the US. The bombing was attributed to Mario Buda and other Italian anarchist followers of Luigi Galleani, or “Galleanists.” Over nearly two decades, they had been implicated in numerous police killings, police station bombings and other “propaganda of the deed.”

With assimilation and the white privilege and prosperity enjoyed mainly by later generations, Americans of Italian descent have tended to espouse a centrist or conservative politics, and have tended to be averse to the disruptive, dissensus politics of contemporary movements. There has thus been an inability to appreciate (or even know) that Italian-Americans at the turn of the century were very much involved in radical left politics and massive strikes and political demonstrations. This deficit in historical self-perception means that the rich history of Italian- American involvement with anarchist, socialist, labor and anti-fascist politics dedicated to economic and political justice inhabits a kind of blind spot in the Italian-American ethnic imaginary. Italians played a key role in the well-known Bread and Roses Strike in 1912 in Lawrence, Kansas; the Mesabi Iron Range Strikes of 1907 and 1916; the Paterson, New Jersey, Silk Strike of 1913; and the Seattle General Strike of 1919. Italian longshoremen and garment, textile and mining workers engaged in the struggle for better working conditions, benefits and shorter workdays. Along with other immigrants and American-born laborers, these struggles, as part of the country’s larger labor tradition and history, contributed to generating a greater shared prosperity and helped produced the nation’s middle class.

While acts of sabotage and terror represented a miniscule portion of Italian-American political action and of movement activities by European immigrants in general, they nonetheless came to represent a stubborn archetype that helped produce a public contempt and anti-immigrant hostility which was widespread — like today. The “otherness” of these groups and the “agitator” stereotype were embedded to the point where standard questions for immigrants arriving in New York included, “Are you an anarchist or polygamist?” It’s hard to imagine that if the descendants of that tradition identified with its radical basis, spirit and historical legacy, that they’d be so enthusiastically on board with Trump’s ineffective and discriminatory measures.

If they connected the actual history of their own beloved ancestors with the experiences of today’s immigrants and refugees — who pose no greater threat than non-immigrants, who are in search of opportunity, who seek refuge for themselves and their children from suffering, misery and death — they would extend a hand of goodwill instead of cheering on an authoritarian nationalist as he bars the golden door.

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