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Italian-Americans Accepted the Challenge Of Americanism—Why Can’t Hispanics?
"This is America and we speak English!" wasn't the cry out of outraged "nativists" —it was the motto of a whole generation of Italian-American immigrants. My grandfather immigrated to the United States from Italy and made a conscious effort to assimilate to the culture of his new home, including making my father speak English at all times. I never at any time heard either of them complain about the 1921-1924 immigration cut-off.
My grandfather wasn't alone. Italian-Americans have a long history of advocating for patriotic immigration reform even after first achieving representation in the United States Congress. According to historian John Higham's seminal Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism: 1860–1925, the first Italian-American to be elected to Congress was Anthony Caminetti, the native born son of a Sicilian immigrant. Caminetti was elected to the US House of Representatives from the state of California in the 1890's. However, his largest impact on national policy came when he was named Commissioner General of Immigration by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913.
Caminetti implemented an “America First” migration program that would impact policy for decades. He believed in the maintenance of America's historic demographic majority and strongly campaigned against immigration from Asia. In this, he was only echoing the wishes of his constituents, as he entered Congress ten years after the California congressional delegation and the Knights of Labor had been instrumental in pushing through the Chinese Exclusion Act. He also introduced "inspection abroad" programs to ensure that unsuitable candidates for immigration would be dissuaded before even sailing to American shores.
As someone who put the United States first, Caminetti was the progenitor of a whole tradition of Italian-American patriots. Clearly at the top of the list is former Rep. Tom Tancredo, whose yeoman work in the House of Representatives sank George W. Bush's push for amnesty and earned him the hatred of Karl Rove and the GOP Establishment.
Another patriotic immigration reformer of Italian descent is the former Mayor of Hazleton, Lou Barletta. Now a Republican Congressman, Barletta is one of the few prominent voices inside the Beltway warning that amnesty will doom his party to permanent minority status.
In Arizona, the indomitable Sheriff Joe Arpaio has repeatedly beaten back attacks from pro-amnesty, open borders groups.
Finally, in the House of Delegates of Virginia, Dave Albo has been utterly steadfast in pushing the legislature to confront and address the problem of mass illegal immigration into the Old Dominion.
This legacy of immigration patriotism is all the more remarkable considering that Italian-American immigration was not exactly welcomed by "nativists" of the time. In 1916, one year prior to U.S. entry into World War I, even the progressive magazine The New Republic wrote,
Freedom of migration from one country to another appears to be one of the elements in nineteenth-century liberalism that is fated to disappear. The responsibility of the state for the welfare of its individual members is progressively increasing. The democracy of today...cannot...permit social ills to be aggravated by excessive immigration.
[The Control of Immigration, pp. 254-255, April 8, 1916]
These comments were a reaction to the previous three decades (1880-1910), which had seen a tidal wave of immigration. More importantly, these new immigrants were from non-traditional sources, hailing from the southern and eastern regions of the European continent. In those thirty years, nearly 2 million Italian immigrants, mainly from the Mezzogiorno, the southern and poorer part of the Italian peninsula, disembarked in the U.S. The arrival of these often illiterate and swarthy immigrants raised the fears of many in the Anglo-Saxon majority. As early as 1891, the magazine Popular Science Monthly ran a story with the title: What Shall We Do with the Dago?, [By Appleton Moran, December 1891]
In the years immediately following World War I, Italian immigrants, both new and those already living in the U.S., were caught up in the "Red Scare." A frightened public believed that Bolshevism could come to America, and it would be transmitted by foreigners. Wilson's Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, capitalized on those fears and deported a host of "radicals."
By 1921, Congress had cut back the total number of immigrants admitted. Taking advantage of the momentum, the American Federation of Labor joined forces with patriotic immigration reformers to push for the National Origins Act, which was passed in 1924. The bill further limited the number of immigrants, although Canada and Latin America were exempt from the law's requirements. All Asian immigration was excluded. The new law stated that the number of new immigrants admitted from any European country was to be computed based on 2% of their presence in the U.S. Census of 1890. That specifically meant that the Italian quota, which had been 42,000, was reduced to 4,000.
But how were the restrictions on Italian immigration seen by Italian-Americans of the time? Italian author Luigi Barzini lived in the United States from 1922 to 1930, the year he graduated from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Barzini wrote that by the second generation,
The Italians had shed what little ‘italianita' their parents brought to the new country and did not speak a word of the language... they know nothing about Italy.
This was not an accident. Immigration patriots of the time were known as "100 percenters" who emphasized their devotion to the United States and their renunciation of any foreign heritage. Anthony Caminetti was one of the most enthusiastic of these activists. And as Tancredo, Barletta, and other examples show, this kind of patriotic devotion continues to the present day.
What the Italian-American experience shows is that immigration patriotism need not create a narrative of "victimization" and "oppression" for immigrant Americans. Unlike other groups, Italian-Americans saw the patriotic movements of the time as a challenge to live up to. By and large, they did. And they continue to do so.
In contrast, contemporary advocacy groups for La Raza constantly advocate for a "path to citizenship," but there's little evidence Hispanics actually want it. According to the pro-amnesty Washington Post, "Only about a third of the 5.4 million immigrants who are eligible to become US citizens have done so." [A Third of eligible Mexicans become US citizens, by Tara Bahrampour, February5, 2013.] While my grandfather would often talk of the importance of becoming an American citizen, today's immigrants hardly seem to care.
Perhaps most importantly, Italian-Americans were not coddled, but systematically pushed into assimilation. During the first half of the twentieth century, federal and state governments neither established nor funded anything like the bi-lingual education programs which have, if anything, slowed down the recent immigrant absorption. Historically, schools actually began the assimilation process: there was only one language of instruction, and only one flag visible in the classroom.
In contrast, the Hispanic immigrant today, legal or not, is afforded greater opportunity for employment and for entry into college on the basis of "Affirmative Action," unknown to immigrants of an earlier time. Resisting assimilation into the American way of life is actually rewarded by the American government.
In contrast to what is happening today, to Caminetti and the "100 per centers," America was a nation with a nonnegotiable core of belief and identity. For any citizen, current or prospective, to call himself an American meant cutting the umbilical cord that tied him to his previous loyalty.
As, historian John Higham noted, the 100 percenters "...required the individual's sense of complete identification with the nation, a sense of identification so all-embracing as to permeate and stabilize the rest of his thinking and behavior." [Strangers In The Land, P. 205]
It followed, then, that Caminetti assisted Attorney-General Palmer in the deportation of radicals, including Italian anarchists, from the country. If Caminetti thought an Italian immigrant was potentially dangerous to the nation, it was his new country that mattered, and not his ethnic ties.
“I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished.... However, we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life ...”
Italian-Americans show it does not have to be that way. Resentment of an immigration cut-off is not inevitable.
However, as in the Italian-American experience, “Americanism” is a challenge to be accepted and an expectation of conduct—not a gift from an exhausted and corrupted ruling class that has long since lost its patriotism.
Vincent Chiarello (email him) is a retired Foreign Service Officer whose tours included U.S. embassies in Latin America and Europe. His last, and most memorable, assignment was to the US Embassy to The Holy See. He is a former member of the Board the American National Council for Immigration Reform of northern Virginia (ANCIR). For his VDARE.COM appearances, click here.