Saturday, October 5, 2019

From Marc to Cuch: The Evolution of Italian American Attitudes About Immigrants

Rep. Vito Marcantonio (left) and Trump administration immigration official Ken Cuccinelli.
Rep. Vito Marcantonio was born in the United States, son of a family hailing from Basilicata, the hill town of Picerno, in southern Italy. His grandmother and parents traversed Ellis Island on their way to establishing a difficult life in New York’s East Harlem. 
Ken Cuccinelli is the Trump administration’s Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, descendant of Italians who also passed through Ellis Island on their way to establishing a life in America. 
The two men’s roots are similar, but their attitudes toward the immigrants who came after their own families did, are not. 
Marcantonio was more than a defender of immigrants’ rights. He was a proponent of expanding them. Cuccinelli’s policy goals are to limit and rescind. 
A September 5, “New York Times”  article noted that Cuccinelli imposed a rule to deny immigrants legal status if they were deemed likely to use government benefit programs. 
One day after announcing the policy, “The Times” reported, “Mr Cuccinelli revised the iconic sonnet on the Statue of Liberty to read, "Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge." 
Cuccinelli’s hard-hearted revision of Emma Lazarus' magnificent poem indicated just how far many Italian Americans had drifted from their roots as immigrant stock. 
“Mr. Cuccinelli,” noted The Gray Lady, “tends to tailor his views based on whether the legal immigrants in question are fleeing desperation south of the border or, like his ancestors, escaping Europe.” 
In “Vito Marcantonio: The People’s Politician,” Salvatore LaGumina noted that, in his first term as congressman, the East Harlemite legislated to humanize the immigrant experience.   
“These bills, designed to prevent the separation of families were especially important to his constituents since so many Italo-Americans were affected,” wrote LaGumina. 
In addition to his legislative efforts, Marcantonio often interceded with the commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization (today’s ICE) on behalf of the aliens drawn from his Italian constituency. 
He was walking a path hacked out by his mentor, Fiorella LaGuardia who, as congressman, battled  the Johnson-Reed Act, aka, the Immigration Act of 1924. Signed by Calvin Coolidge, it reduced quotas for Italian, Jewish, Japanese, Slavic and Greek immigrants by 90 percent, while opening the door for those from “Nordic” countries. 
Traces of this sentiment that northern Europeans are, if not more superior, at least more desirable than the swarthy hordes from southern and eastern Europe, streaked across the national landscape when President Trump lamented that today’s immigrants don’t come from places like Norway. 

In “LaGuardia: A Fighter Against His Times,” author Arthur Mann observed that, in the 1920s nationalistic arguments, “made a wide appeal, namely, that before America had been free of vice and crime, of slums and drunkards, that is had been, in short, a paradise of Protestant Nordics living on farms and in small towns.”

LaGuardia took the Johnson-Reed bill personally, wrote Mann, “for it placed a stigma on the American-born children of the new immigrants as well as on the immigrants themselves.”
Being "legal" didn't make Italian immigrants feel more welcome. 
With no way to prevent its passage, The Little Flower thought it best to dignify his cause by dragging the fight out until the bitter end. 

He tangled with the likes of Republican Rep. Jasper Tincher from Kansas who told the House, “On the one side is beer, Bolshevism, unassimilating settlements, and perhaps many flags. On the other side is constitutional government; one flag, the Stars and Stripes; America, ‘a government of, by, and for the people’; America our country.”

A decade later, with Marcantonio occupying LaGuardia’s congressional perch, the  leading restrictionist, Rep. Martin Dies of Texas stated, “There is no middle ground or compromise. Either we are for or against America. If we are for America, we must be for the exclusion of these new-seed immigrants and the deportation of those unlawfully here.” 

So Marcantonio was filling his mentor’s shoes when he took up cudgels on behalf of newly-minted Americans against men of this particular ilk; Cuccinelli’s political antecedents. 

Cuccinelli has taken up cudgels on behalf of a not-insignificant Italian American contingent who have no truck with today’s immigrants and dismiss any comparison of them with the Italians who came prior. 

Their forebears, this block contends, were a different breed than today’s immigrants. They came to work, not for a handout. They were legal. Integrating quickly, Italians learned English, never waved Italian flags, and strained not the social fabric. 

In his time, Marcantonio was the most politically prominent Italian American congressman. 

It was Marc’s job to look after not only his constituency, but his people, and the hard copy record of those efforts details what Italian Americans needed from their government and what they didn’t need. 

His advocacy reflected the material circumstances Italians, and their American-born children, endured throughout Marcantonio's congressional tenure, representing a district that encompassed the largest Little Italy in America. 

“It is important to observe that since many of his constituents were Italo-American immigrants, people characterized by a rather strong resistance to naturalization,” LaGumina pointed out, “it behooved him to be sensitive to any matter concerning them.” 

Rather than morph into good and obediant naturalized citizens, Italian Americans, La Gumina noted, were slow at melting into the pot, remaining as aliens for a longer period than any other immigrant group. 

In Marcantonio’s time there was continued nationwide agreement as to the need for limitations on immigration.

One of the freshman congressman's first speeches addressed immigration policy that separated families.

On Feb. 19, 1935, a congressional colleague proposed barring extra-quota admissions to resident aliens’ wives and children and Marcantonio bolted down to the House Well. 

He responded, “Does the gentleman believe it is wrong for families to be reunited, and unAmerican and detrimental to the economic welfare of this nation?”

Breaking up families by deporting one or more alien parents was not only being cruel, he argued, it would increase relief expenditures by the nation’s obligations to their dependents, who were citizens. 

“You cannot deport them,” Marcantonio railed. “You have no right to. They are not cattle. Starve the father and you starve the American child.”

Some weeks later, on March 4, 1935, the radical congressman excoriated a bill empowering the Secretary of Labor to deport aliens promoting propaganda “hailing from foreign soil.” 

“This bill is vicious,” spat Marcantonio. “It would carry an avalanche of alien and sedition legislation and further persecution of aliens. Let us remember that we are living in 1935 and not in 1917. Let us legislate not by hysteria, but by common sense.” 
The Cuccinelli Creed.

Pilloried as “Stalin’s Stooge” and used as a kind of Red measuring stick by which his collaborators were identified and impugned, Marcantonio’s arguments were based on the nation’s sacred texts. 

In a May 23, 1939, radio address Marcantonio leaned upon the Constitution in skewering H.R. 5643. 

The Hobbs Bill established that any alien ordered deported, but whose deportation was not effectuated within 90 days, should be detained and confined until such time as deportation was feasible. 

Reading between the legislative lines, Marcantonio construed this as meaning indefinite detention and deemed it a “concentration camp” bill. 

“Nowhere in this bill is any provision found for due process; for any kind of a trial, with or without a jury,” Marcantonio told his radio audience. “What constitutes a concentration camp, what constitutes a Bastille, is the method by which persons are sent to those places.”

Such imprisonment, he noted, can be provided for by Congress only in accordance with the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth constitutional amendments.

“The language of the amendments, please note,” he emphasized, “uses the word ‘person’ and not ‘citizen.’ This clearly establishes that the constitutional guaranties are as equally applicable to aliens as they are to citizens.”

Marcantonio again hit the radio waves on July 30, 1940, over a bill requiring noncitizens to be fingerprinted and registered. In this instance he drew the force of his argument from another document essential to the nation’s democratic DNA. 

“Remember when the Founding Fathers said in that everlasting document, the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal? They did not say that all men are created equal except Italians. They did not say that all men are created equal except Jews. They did not say that all men are created equal except Negroes,” he hammered away, “nor did they say that all men are created equally except noncitizens. They said that all men are created equal. By this they meant no discrimination, no segregation, and no persecution of the foreign-born.” 

This is a posture far afield from that found in Cuccinelli's policies, which focus on the paper status of his deportation targets.

Wrote LaGumina: “He was attempting to teach the moral that minorities must be protected regardless of their citizenship status. He fought vigorously for the right of aliens who were faced with deportation on the grounds that they had entered the country illegally, but who were otherwise of good character.”

Marc laid the foundation for an argument that held American rights to be universal and worthy of being extended wherever possible. 

His support of the Second World War was contingent upon more democracy at home as recompense for the Americans dying in its name overseas. 

As the war took center stage, Marcantonio addressed the House on Feb. 28, 1942, over a policy still with us today:  

“On the one hand we draft the foreign-born who is not a citizen, and on the other hand we now seek to prevent the endowment of citizenship on the foreign-born who wears the uniform of our country and who is ready to fight and lay down his life for our country.  

“What greater requisite for citizenship can there be than that of service in the armed forces in time of war?”

His efforts were trans-ethnic, for Marcantonio’s life experience in an immigrant ghetto opened him to those grappling with the same kind of experience.

Marcantonio used the stated democratic objectives of the war as opportunities to eliminate other vestiges of discrimination against the undocumented. 

In one instance he extended a helping hand to Filipinos living in the U.S. 

The Philippines’ stand against Japanese aggression had earned the admiration of Americans who were largely unaware of the harsh discrimination Filipinios suffered in Western states Filipinos or that they were denied citizenship given their classification as “Asiatics.” 

When the U.S. finally gained control of the Philippines, efforts to naturalize Filipinos living in the U.S. were launched, but did not prosper. 

In 1939, Marcantonio introduced the first such resolution, but it was shelved by the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. He offered similar resolutions three times more during the war on behalf of these nonItalian immigrants. 


“Marcantonio’s position,” wrote LaGumina, “was so unique and so radical that one is led to believe that even if no immigrants resided in his district, he would have espoused their cause, just as he did for the miners of West Virginia or the marble workers of Vermont - neither of whom votes in East Harlem.”

Where, or when, did Italian Americans diverge from the kindred spirit evident in Marcantonio’s empathetic approach to the immigrants and move toward Cuccinelli’s hairsplitting new arrivals into classifications of desirability?

“How did Italian Americans end up identifying themselves, and being identified, with such conservative values and reactionary political forces?” asks Marcella Bencivenni in a 2006 discussion of “The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism,” in the “Monthly Review.” 

The book edited by Philip Cannistraro and Vito Marcantonio Forum Co-Chair Gerald Meyer, “shows that, despite their present conservative image, Italian Americans have a vibrant and rich radical past,” she wrote. 

Bencivenni noted the important role Italian immigrants played in early 20th century working-class struggles such as the Lawrence textile strikes (1912 and 1919), the Patterson silk strike (1913), the Mesabi Iron Range strikes (1907 and 1916), and the New York City Harbor strikes of 1907 and 1919. 

“For most Italian Americans the radical past of their families still remains impenetrable - buried by their own parents’ and grandparents’ fears of ethnic discrimination and political persecution,” wrote Bencivenni.

She posited that Italian American radicalism was dismantled by the Red Scare of 1917-20 with its thousands of arrests and deportations. The 1927 execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, she added, demoralized American Italians, driving many to bury aspects of their radical past for fear of political persecution. 

Later, the Red Scare of the 1950, Bencivenni wrote, “further distanced Italian Americans from their radical past.”

And made way for Ken Cuccinelli and his caucus of anti-immigrant descendants of immigrants. 

Analyses of Marcantonio’s fall tend to focus on his leftism, but his supporters would have been justified in thinking he was just as likely ruined for being Italian as for being Red.

Linking the New World Marc with the Old World Marc: VMF to Picerno!

The Vito Marcantonio Forum’s efforts at bringing life to East Harlem’s treasure recently yielded results across the Atlantic in the place of his maternal and paternal families - Picerno, Basilicata, southern Italy. 

The realization in January 2018 of the VMF’s goal of a street sign with the congressman’s name on it, somewhere relevant in New York City, emitted waves that reached Italian shores. 

Specifically, it was a story about the posting of a Vito Marcantonio “Lucky Corner” sign up in East Harlem from this very website. 

The Picerno municipal government had obtained funding for a three-day conference with sidebars about Marcantonio’s life and times. Through Saverio Romeo, who was raised in Picerno and works in London, the VMF was invited to send a pair of delegates. 

Chosen were VMF co-chair Roberto Ragone and member Gary Bono. 

Their cultural and educational sojourn took them to the presentation of “Etica del Dialogo” by Gennaro Curcio, a local author, that included a panel involving the author, and VMF member in Italy, Renato Cantore. 

Curcio is also the author of a two-part tome summarizing Gerald Meyer’s “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician” and discussion of selected speeches from “I Vote My Conscience.” 

The duo visited the Associazione Insieme Onlus (Together Nonprofit Organization), an advocate group for the disabled, that had curated an exhibit explaining the political particulars of post-World War II Italy.  

The event included a pure VMF panel featuring the American guests, and Cantore, each of whom held forth on some aspect of Marcantonio’s significance and influence.
The rigorous schedule soon put Ragone’s thespian talents to good effect with his rendering of a July 1942 speech defending Italian Americans against discrimination in employment during the war years. 

The two Americani were interviewed for a radio show/podcast, visited the Albert Einstein Technical School, and the environs of provincial Basilicata. 

The final day included a tour of nearby Matera, featured in Carlo Levi’s classic, “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” an appropriate stop linking the radical traditions of 20th century New York and Italy.  

Ragone, who declared the Vito Marcatonio Forum a "transnational organization" upon his return, has written an account of the sojourn that can be found at Vitomarcantonio.org