With President Obama’s announcement of an executive order on immigration reform, the debate over immigrants in US society is ramping up. Most people involved in the debate readily acknowledge that we’re a nation of immigrants. But to many opponents of high levels of immigration coming from Latin America, this current wave of immigration seems different than previous ones.
And it is different. For example, the global economic conflicts involved in the influx of Italian immigrants 100 years ago were worse than we have any reason to expect from immigration today.
In a 1995 paper for the journal In Defense of the Alien, Rita J. Simons points out that, historically, Americans have been opposed to each major wave of immigration while it is happening. Later, though, we look back on the newcomers as having contributed greatly to our nation. In 1982, for example, only 25 percent of survey respondents said Mexican immigrants have, on balance, been a good thing for the country, while 34 percent said they’ve been bad for it. In contrast, 56 percent said Italian immigrants have been a net positive, compared with 10 percent who said the opposite.
The fact that Italian-Americans have now been thoroughly accepted is a testament to assimilation despite seemingly long odds. Writing in the journal MELUS in 2004, Stefano Luconi describes the world of Italian-Americans in the early 20th Century. He notes that, upon arrival, the newcomers generally didn’t even perceive themselves as Italian, but identified with the culture and dialect of specific regions, like Sicily or Abruzzo. It was discrimination that pushed them to “close ranks and to develop a sense of ethnic identity based on their Italianness in the interwar years,” Luconi writes.
As it turned out, it was bad timing for this newfound sense of nationalism, coinciding with the rise of fascism and the buildup to World War II. Luconi writes that many first-and second-generation Italian-Americans “rejoiced over the alleged achievements of Mussolini’s regime out of a sense of ethnic redress after suffering from ethnic discrimination in the US for being supposedly an inferior people.”
When Italy declared war on the US in 1941, Italian Americans overwhelmingly declared their allegiance to their new home, but not without misgivings. Luconi quotes second-generation immigrant Joe Vergara: “I wondered how I would react if I was sent to Italy… Would I be able to pull the trigger if I saw one of Pop’s compa’s through the gun sight? When the time came, I told myself, I would do what I had to. But, all the same, I wondered.”
And yet, despite strong ties to one of America’s greatest wartime enemies, it took a short time for Italian Americans to be viewed as thoroughly American. For all the uproar about Latino immigrants, the nation’s experience with Italians suggests that integration may not be that difficult, even under the worst circumstances. And, after all, at least we’re unlikely to go to war with Mexico.