History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part II)

Part II

Part I of this post explored parallels between the 1924 immigration law and President Trump’s 2017 executive order restricting immigration to the United States. Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

While the lessons of history may be ambiguous, we can learn a lot about our own society by looking at how we understand past events. The first part of this post was inspired in part by a picture on Facebook:

italian-immigrants-didnt-wave-italian-flags

There are numerous problems with this meme, not least of which is the attempt to use the past to suggest that the ancestors of white Americans were more noble or patriotic than recent immigrants to the United States. To suggest that early 20th-century Italian-Americans were much more likely to assimilate than their modern counterparts is likely not true. In fact, Italian-Americans in the early 1900s had a reputation that was not all that different from immigrants today. Italians attempted to preserve their culture, often in the face of intense pressures to “Americanize.” Moreover, some native-born Americans questioned whether Italians’ religious faith—in this case, Catholicism—was compatible with American civic life. In other words, Italian-Americans were not that different from other immigrant groups that came to the United States, both at the time and in recent years.

There was another element of the Italian-American experience that bears interesting parallels to today. In 1919 and 1920, terrorists launched a series of deadly bombings in the United States. The culprits were American anarchists who may have been inspired by Luigi Galleani, an Italian-American radical based in Lynn, Massachusetts. The great majority of Italian-Americans were not involved in anti-government activities, let alone deadly bombings. Nevertheless, some Americans came to believe that immigrants—especially Italian ones—represented a very real and dangerous threat to the nation’s security. Galleani was deported in 1919, along with several other Italian radicals. A Justice Department crackdown on radicals included a 1920 raid in Paterson, New Jersey that led to the arrest of twenty-nine Italian anarchists.

galleani

Italian Anarchist Luigi Galleani

In this climate of anti-immigrant and anti-radical hysteria, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti gripped the nation’s attention. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two Italian-Americans who were accused of murdering a guard during a robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1920. The two men, who were alleged to have ties to Galleani, were tried, convicted, and eventually executed in 1927. Though their culpability has been debated (and research suggests that one or both of the accused were in fact involved in terrorist activities), most historians argue that their trial was hopelessly compromised by the virulent anti-immigrant and anti-radical views of the period.

The fate of Sacco and Vanzetti brings us back to the issue of immigration that started Part I of this post. The 1924 immigration law ostensibly protected the United States from dangerous elements who wanted to destroy American society. Italian-Americans were the victims of these policies. Today, Italian-Americans who want to denounce recent immigrants for their failure to assimilate look back nostalgically to a time when, in their understanding, their great-grandparents came to the United States and admirably and enthusiastically transformed from Italians to Americans. This characterization obscures the long history of nativism in the United States and the debates about security that have often informed immigration policy. It also does a disservice to earlier generations of immigrants, who face intense prejudice and opposition–not unlike immigrants today.

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.

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