“Certain kinds of criminality are inherent in the Italian race. In the popular mind, crimes of personal violence, robbery, blackmail and extortion are peculiar to the people of Italy.” ~ The United States Immigration Commission, Dillingham Report, 1911.
Sec. 11. (a) The annual quota of any nationality shall be 2 per centum of the number of foreign-born individuals of such nationality resident in continental United States as determined by the United States census of 1890, but the minimum quota of any nationality shall be 100. ~ Immigration Act of 1924
United States Statutes at Large (68th Cong., Sess. I, Chp. 190, p. 153-169)
In 1907 the United States Congress authorized a commission to investigate ‘the origins and consequences’ of immigration into the country. It was chaired by Senator William P. Dillingham of Vermont. Its final report, all forty-one volumes, was released in 1911.
The Dillingham Report’s main findings were that immigration from southern and eastern Europe ‘posed a serious threat to American society and culture’; immigration from northern and western Europe should be encouraged; immigration from Asia should be stopped; the Immigration services should administer a “reading and writing test as the most feasible single method of restricting undesirable immigration.”
World War I got in the way of any further action on the commission’s recommendations – Germany became an enemy, Italy was an important ally.
That, however, was forgotten almost as soon as the war ended. In 1921, the Emergency Quota Act was passed, limiting immigration along the lines proposed by the commission. It was supposed to be a short-term policy but was codified into law in 1924 with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. That Act remained – at least in name – the law of the land until 1965.
The effects of the Act were immediate and severe. Between 1900 and 1910, about 200,000 Italians immigrated annually. After the Act, 4,000 per year were allowed. In 1924, unsurprisingly, more Italians, Czechs, Yugoslavs, Greeks, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Portuguese, Romanians, Spaniards, Jews, Chinese, and Japanese left the U.S, than arrived as new immigrants.
The numbers of immigrants from countries once despised and prejudiced against in the Nineteenth Century, particularly the Germans and Irish, rose.
We started contemplating this last week when we saw an article in the New York Times – When America Barred Italians.
The author, Helene Stapinski, is a descendant of Southern Italians who came to the United States in the early 1900s – before the new law. She has written several best sellers about immigrants and the neighborhoods they settled in, particularly where she grew up in New Jersey.
She wrote this piece for the Times because she was concerned with the support she sees in her community for Trump’s proposed travel bans. She ends her article with, “Italian Americans who today support the president’s efforts to keep Muslims and Mexicans out of the country need to look into their own histories — and deep into their hearts. After all, they’re just a couple of generations removed from that same racism, hatred and abuse. Had our ancestors tried to come days, weeks or months after the 1924 ban, we may not have even been born.”
This strikes home. As recent immigrant, a naturalized citizen, and a parent. I simply can’t imagine it.
I talked to a friend about this a few days ago. Well, it was really a conversation about irony and empathy and this article. He pointed out that of his four grandparents – all alive through his childhood – one had immigrated from Ireland in 1898, one from England in 1905, and one was born here after her Welsh parents immigrated in 1878. The remaining grandparent’s family came to America long before there was a United States.
He thought that between recent immigrants and first generation kids and his family’s ‘percentage’, we could account for about 95% of the population of the Untied States. That is, very, very, very few citizens in the United States not Native American, can trace their family roots back more than 100 years without encountering an immigrant. Then, the odds are overwhelming that that immigrant ancestor faced significant biases and abuses.
Yet, it seemed to us at least, that it doesn’t take long for new generations to forget that and lose their empathy for the newcomers going through the same things their ancestors did.
This needs to change and we salute Helene Stapinski for getting us started.