“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were once a stranger in the land in Egypt.” —Leviticus, 19:34
For nearly a century, an open-door immigration policy had been the law of the land, a system that allowed anarchists, paupers, communists and free-love advocates to flood the United States. In the greatest movement of peoples in history, millions of Italians, Jews, Slavs, and Magyars flooded America with few skills relevant to an urban, industrial nation other than desperate hopes and a hardened work ethic.
A New England college president thundered that America was accepting “beaten men from beaten races.” Old-stock Americans, confronted by terrorism, war, and religious conflict demanded an end to pell-mell immigration. Angry voters elected a Republican president who promised “a return to normalcy”and immigration reform. The date was 1920.
Today, on talk radio and op-eds, many yearn for a return to a time when their forefathers entered this country legally. The problem with such logic is that for most of American history, “legal” meant showing up at Castle Garden or Ellis Island, where you received a delousing and a bowl of soup. You were then free to seek your fortune anywhere. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first effort to keep out “undesirables.”
The immigration questions confronting us today are both deeply perplexing and divisive. Let us consider the life histories of Patrick Kennedy, Friedrich Trump, Rosolino Mormino and Nina Tagliarini.
The Irish were America’s original “bad hombres.” In the 1840s, hundreds of thousands of “Famine Irish” fled to the United States. Two such refugees were Patrick Kennedy and Bridget Murphy, great-grandparents of President John F. Kennedy.
The sons and daughters of Erin overwhelmed American cities, creating the first great urban slums. Harshly depicted as ape-like in cartoons, the Irish soon dominated the hounded Roman Catholic Church. The term “Paddy Wagon” branded their dubious status as the most hated immigrant group in American history. In Boston, wrote historian Oscar Handlin, they were “fated to remain a massive lump in the community, undigested and undigestible.”
Massive numbers of German immigrants also arrived in the 1840s. If the Irish were considered unassimilable, the Germans were depicted as model citizens of this new country: industrious and literate, patriotic and Teutonic.
Friedrich Trump left Germany in 1885. The 16-year-old barber’s apprentice was, in today’s parlance, “an unaccompanied minor.” He may have been fleeing military service. In America, he lit out for the country, prospecting in the West. He struck gold when he opened a brothel in Seattle. He returned to Germany, married, and brought his fraulein to Queens, New York. His grandson is President Donald Trump.
When the U.S. entered the Great War (WWI) in 1917, German Americans were recast as subversive Huns slavishly devoted to the Fatherland. Florida legislators forbade the teaching of German in public schools. Federal authorities shut down Tampa’s German-American Club on Nebraska Ave.
Historically, Italian immigrants represent the group most relevant to today’s debate. Like the Mexicans of 2018, Italians comprised America’s largest immigrant group in 1918. Between the 1880s and 1914, more than four million Italians came to America. One million Sicilians left an island the size of Vermont. Rumors circulated that American streets were paved with gold. Upon arriving, they discovered dirt roads, but contractors would pay them a day to lay brick streets!
To immigrants, unremitting work was the path to the American dream. A proverb promised, “He who crosses the ocean buys a home.” Yet another proverb warned, “You will find the same village the world over.” In 1891, a mob broke into a New Orleans jail and hanged 11 Italian immigrants.
In 1910, a bitter strike shut down Ybor City’s cigar factories. A Tampa Tribune reporter described “bevies of gayly dressed Spanish, Cuban, and Italian women” waving their red bandanas. “It was a demonstration such as has reared its head within the gates of Old Barcelona. That hot bed of Latin civic disturbance.”
An American bookkeeper was killed during the tumult. Two Italians were arrested. Police drove the immigrants to the corner of today’s Kennedy Blvd. and Howard Ave. An awaiting mob hanged the two suspects. The event remains the worst lynching in Tampa’s history.
In 1906, Rosolino Mormino and his five brothers left Sicily for Napoleonville, Louisiana. There, they cut sugarcane. “In America,” Rosolino wrote his mother, “the bread is soft, but life is hard.”
That same year, a Florida Department of Agriculture report warned, “We do not want the people of Southern Europe, the Poles... and the Italians... the classes of these people are of the lowest order... they are the breeders of socialism and anarchism.”
Time heals. Americanization, assimilation, and WWII transformed Irish, German, and Italian Americans into patriotic sons and daughters. John F. Kennedy became a war hero for his bravery on PT-109, while his older brother died on a dangerous mission. Rosolino Mormino’s sons fought valiantly at Okinawa.
WWII softened ethnic and religious animosities in America. The platoon’s band of brothers and shared sacrifice became great social levelers. War drove home the point that we’re all in this together. Compared to the Japanese treatment of colonial subjects and Germany’s Holocaust, America seemed blessed. Race, not ethnicity, loomed as America’s most gnawing challenge.
In 1981, when teaching at the University of Rome, I reunited with my Sicilian relatives. I enjoyed many conversations with my great uncle Giuseppe. He told me that his Americani brothers returned to bring him to America, but his mother sobbed at the prospect of losing her last son. He never left.
One day Giuseppe told me — in Italian — that his brothers schooled him in survival skills needed in America. They taught him the essentials of English. He still recalled several phrases. “You son o’ bitch!” he uttered. Several other choice invectives followed. He then retrieved from his memory bank the most vital phrase: “Hey mister, you got job for me?”
In 1980, I interviewed Nina Tagliarini Ferlita. Describing her voyage from Sicily to New York to Tampa, she explained the humiliation passengers endured. “Imagine,” she recalled, “a 14-year-old kid disrobing in front of adults. They threw on us all kinds of disinfectant. I still smell it.” But she understood America was a land of hope, recreating the moment: “The minute I saw the Statue of Liberty, I left everything behind. It was like stepping on a piece of ice and by the time you’re on the other side, it’s melted.” Nina served as a nurse in WWII.
Let us raise a glass of Guinness, a stein of lager beer, and a jug of Dago red to parents or great-grandparents who endured the rites of passage so we could enjoy the blessings of sweet liberty.
Gary Mormino has taught history at USF Tampa and St. Petersburg since 1977.