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Italian Immigration to the US

The New World

As the United States’ economy became industrialized and started to boom, immigrants from all over the world, and especially Europe, came to find work and a home with a new availability of wealth. Italians were one of the largest groups to make their way to America, finding work in many major cities and creating foundations for growing industries. Like many immigrants, they tended to live near each other and brought their daily practices and culture with them. This manifested in many pockets of large Italian communities, transforming neighborhoods into what became known as “Little Italy,” which served as the cultural hub for anything from Italian food to labor and aid programs. Although the neighborhood provided a community of similar lives, they also became breeding grounds for organized crime. Leaders of crime syndicates in Italy took the same chance to move to America and start anew, albeit through the protection of community members and businesses, illegal distribution of alcohol and firearms, and various other self-interested and power-hungry routes (Bertellini 2004).

While the ethnic enclaves like Little Italy were important to introducing America to Italian culture, they also paint a picture of a larger problem indicative of the state of the country. Immigration into the United States was regulated through two points, Ellis Island and Angel Island, with Ellis Island seeing the main influx of European immigration. Because it was such a small port and saw an enormous amount of people daily, regulations put in place would have drastic impact on many travelers. Work by the Immigration Restriction League and Immigration Commission in the 1910s was done to prove racial inferiority of many groups of immigrants. Restrictions were pushed for, partially in an attempt to preserve racial purity, but masked under the guise of an impossibility of assimilation. Intelligence tests and job checks were common tools to distinguish “worthy” immigrants from those who threaten the stability of a white dominated society. The eugenics movement, responsible for joining forces with the birth control movement, focused heavily on the preservation of the white Anglo Saxon race and invested in the move for increase immigration restrictions. Restrictions came in the form of inspections of background, employment and health; easily generalizable factors that could result in discrimination based on false facts, like a botched health exam or impossible literacy tests. Many immigrants were not welcome as equals into America and were forced into communities by the people they settled around, often at a detriment to their quality of life (Pavalko 1980; Gauthreaux 2010).

Economic hardships within Europe combined with the access to jobs in a growing market made the US an attractive destination. These hardships came on the heels of many factors, but a main one being emerging radical political ideologies that discriminated against and ostracized many Europeans. Radical ideologies created tension and eventually war between multiple countries with opposing belief systems, causing exorbitant violence and death. World War I was the result of these political clashes and the subsequent infrastructural and economic devastation led to extreme poverty. The governments of both victors and losers were partially destabilized and as a result, the nations could not provide much aid to their people, sending the countries into economic peril. Similarly, a power vacuum in Europe resulted from the restructuring of the destabilized and defeated countries. Nationalistic ideologies, like Fascism and Nazism, were able to take root and force groups, like Jews, who they believed to be the cause of many problems as well as ideological rivals out of the country. After the events of WWI and movements like the radicalization of labor rights, immigrants were seen as a threat to politics and the economy as these ideas were the antithesis of American life. Economic devastation in Europe and, in particular, Italy, continuously incoming immigrants, and a booming American economy lead to the belief that Italy was promoting the emigration of its citizens to the US. This, in the eyes of many Americans, adversely affected society as it was contributing to genocide of the white race through the proliferation of those who were seen as non-white. Additionally, the political ideologies that were spreading throughout Europe were thought to be making their way to America, threatening the integrity of the United States economy and political system. Immigration was seen as a malicious act directly detrimental to the US while it benefitted Italy due to the influx of money being sent from America (Pavalko 1980; Mondello 1964; Bertonha 2001).

As the ethnic enclaves and cities grew, the resident communities and city governments discriminated heavily against the growing populations of Italians. Especially in the southern US, Italian communities were seen as disruptive and segregated. The newly-Americanized immigrants did not support the same beliefs, especially concerning white-supremacist politics and unionization, as the people they began living amongst and violent measures were taken to oppose these growing sects of Italians. The various governments around the US played their part is discrimination through designation of these areas as immigrant colonies via red-lining policies and the establishment of and lack of regulation on tenement housing. The value of the land being lived on, as well as the infrastructure, was deemed to be of lower value the closer it tended to be to immigrants and African Americans. This created a feedback loop of struggle and poverty resulting in rich white districts of cities and poorer non-white areas. The government systematically disenfranchised citizens and immigrants seen as non-Anglo Saxon through the creation of these policies which had wide-reaching consequences for those living in the areas. Overwhelming poverty and dangerous living conditions were a result of the lack of funding given to the neighborhoods. Racist policies and rules not only found their place in housing, but also in the workplace. Horrendous working conditions for immigrants of all nationalities were rampant, leading to many workplace accidents (Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire), lower pay and long hours. Because of the theory of scientific management, white people were thought to be more skilled than those of non-Anglo Saxon background and held more complex positions with higher wages so they were able to earn a greater living than those who were non-Anglo Saxon. (Bean 1992; Gauthreaux 2010).

While most immigrants were affected by the views of the American people and the restrictions that the government placed on them, the lives of Italian immigrants can be used as a model from which to investigate the factors that drove immigrants to the US to the hardships they faced once they reached the “land of opportunity.” Italian immigrants were one of the largest cohorts to migrate to America, so the hardships faced by them may be related to the struggles of other white nationalities. While immigration was a fluid process that never abruptly started or stopped, certain factors caused large spikes that can clearly be seen when investigating the numbers of incoming Italians. The mass influx of immigrants to the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries helped the economy explode while also causing massive immigration reform along the way.