Copyright, Joe Baker, 2017
A note to the reader: Since the middle of 2016, I’ve been struck by how many historical parallels connect our early 21st century with the 1920’s. This is not good news and is very much a cautionary tale. This is the first of four installments on those parallels and on what we ought to try to learn from them. I’ll be releasing the other three over the coming month. As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments. JB
Part 1: The Immigration Act
The three kids; Nicky aged 16, Tony age 10 and Giulia, 8, stood wide-eyed on the deck of the steamer, holding their ears, transfixed by the cascade of fireworks above the great statue of the woman with the torch. They had arrived after a ten-day passage from Naples, unaccompanied by their mother who couldn’t get a visa, on May 26th, Memorial Day, 1924. They didn’t know what Memorial Day was.
The passage had been horrific. They were all sea-sick. Little Giulia had bawled the whole way across the Atlantic, and Nicky had to manage both her and her brother as she fought her own illness and terror. But now they had slipped into the lee of Ellis Island in New York Harbor, and the ship had stopped bucking and pitching, and the showers and flashes of red, green, blue and white bedazzled the sky above them. The two younger children were smiling from ear-to-ear. They assumed the occasion for the fireworks was to welcome them to their new country.
The oldest girl knew better.
The three unaccompanied children arrived in a country focused inward, a country wrestling with what it was.
The enormous economic and infrastructure expansion of the late 19th and early 20th century had created the world’s first real economic and military superpower in America. This creation was built with cheap immigrant labor. Starting with the immense waves of Irish in the mid-19th century, and swelling through the immigration stations at Ellis Island and at Angel Island in California at the turn of the century, immigrants from Europe, the Caribbean and Asia changed the country permanently. Roughly a third of modern Americans are descendants of the Ellis Island arrivals alone.
The wealth of the famous men who owned the railroads, coal mines, timber operations, steel mills, ship yards, ports and manufactories of the United States was incalculable, and was almost entirely the product of immigrant labor. The demand for this labor led late 19th and early 20th century industries, aided by the American government, to actively recruit immigrants in Italy and many other countries. At the time, many countries in Europe and Asia were mired in economic difficulties and ruled by corrupt and oppressive regimes. People were willing to risk everything to provide for their families, they would tear out their lives at the roots and work hard at low wages for a chance at a better life. There was a poem welcoming them at the base of the statue of liberty.
The father of the three kids on that steamer, 36-year-old Giuseppe DiRado, had been recruited in his small village in the Abruzzo by the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was invited here. He was at the docks in Jersey City waiting for them. While he was happy to see them, there were plenty of people who weren’t.
Resentment and repression of recent immigrants wasn’t anything new in the 1920’s. Each successive wave of immigrants depressed the wages of those who had arrived earlier. To a large extent, that’s why American industries recruited them: they kept the costs of production low and the profits high. It also didn’t help that their languages, religions, food, and appearances seemed alien. Anti-immigrant fervor was a favorite weapon of politicians reaching back to before the Civil War. It was an easy way to get supporters to the poles in support of candidates who promised to protect the jobs and rights of the native born against the depravity of the recent arrivals. It carried practically no political downside since the recent immigrants couldn’t vote. It could and did boil over into violence, the largest mass lynching in American history (11 men) was carried out by a New Orleans mob against Italian immigrants in March of 1891.
Anti-immigrant fervor in America reached an ugly peak in the 1920’s for a number of reasons. The end of the First World War brought a recession and layoffs. America’s involvement in the war, and the many casualties it produced, engendered a nativist and isolationist movement that sought to limit trade, foreign entanglements, and immigration. A reaction against Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South created the myth of a noble “lost cause”, a resurgence of the Klan, the rise of Jim Crow, and horrific racial violence. By the early1920’s, the Klan and similar organizations were establishing chapters in northern states like Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and the hatred they felt for African Americans was extended to immigrants, particularly Catholics and Jews. Immigrants were depicted as criminals, vectors for disease, and labor or anarchist extremists prone to violence. They were accused of taking good American jobs away from the more deserving. There were populist calls to curtail or eliminate immigration, especially immigrants from China, Japan, and Southern and Eastern Europe, and American politicians were only too happy to oblige.
On the very day those three kids arrived in New York harbor, Memorial Day of 1924, the Immigration Act, or Johnson-Reed, took effect. The new law imposed a total quota on immigration of 165,000—less than 20 percent of the pre-World War I average. It imposed limits on the number of immigrants from any particular nation on the percentage of each nationality recorded in the 1890 census—a directed effort to limit immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, which mostly occurred after that date. In the first decade of the 20th century, an average of 200,000 Italians had entered the United States annually. With the 1924 Act, the annual quota for Italians was set at about 3,800.
Immigration from Italy, Poland, Russia, China and Japan plummeted. Since these immigrants were primarily employed in unskilled, low wage jobs, the predicted improvement in wages and job availability occurred only at the very bottom of the pay scale. Millions of people, especially Eastern European Jews, were now trapped in countries ruled by repressive, violent and populist regimes, and many of them perished.
The most monstrous burden of this new law was its effect on families, a burden set squarely on the backs of the three kids on the steamer.
Their parents had planned to request a visa for their mother the following year. The request was denied. They tried again in 26, with the same result. Maria Staniscia DiRado was not permitted to enter this country until 1934, ten years after her children.
Giulia, the 8-year-old, was my mother. She did not see her mother again until she was 18. She had nightmares and fits of depression from this separation until her death at the age of 88. I saw this with my own eyes. My mom was a kind soul who never hurt a fly. Children do not really ever recover from trauma like that. When she came here she was just a little kid, an innocent, and she didn’t deserve it.
Starting in the mid-20th century and continuing to the present day, the American agricultural industry has recruited labor from south of the border to support orchards, vineyards, produce operations and slaughterhouses from California to Pennsylvania. The industry has gotten behind legal guest-worker programs, advocated, for the most part unsuccessfully, for greater immigration quotas from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and winked at illegal immigrants willing to work for low wages among the fruit trees and grapevines. Current immigration law has been in need of an overhaul since the 1960’s. For most immigrants south of our border, there isn’t really even a line they can get in to wait for legal permission to come in. To reach the work that can save their families from poverty, repression, and violence, their only recourse is to walk across the desert, or pay a coyote to smuggle them in, and many of them pay for it with their lives.
I live in one of the centers of apple production in the eastern US, and this lynchpin of the regional economy depends entirely on the labor of these immigrants. Like the Chinese railroad workers and Irish and Italian coal miners who came before them, these people, many of them invited or at least encouraged, have left their homes and taken enormous risks for the chance at a better life, and they have created modern American agri-business with their own hands. The work of their hands spills over in unimaginable abundance in the produce isles of every supermarket in America. Enormous fortunes have been built on their backs.
The current administration in Washington, supported by many legislators and voters, have proposed new and severe restrictions on legal immigration, a multi-billion-dollar barrier wall along the border, and the elimination of protections for immigrants brought here illegally as children by their parents. The current occupant of the White House characterized them as criminals, thieves and rapists stealing good American jobs. His supporters, many of them descended from the targets and victims of the Immigration Act, howled their angry approval.
As I write this, ICE raids are separating children from their parents. People are going into hiding, and crops are rotting in the fields and orchards in some places.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
The political campaigns of 2016 promised something new. They have instead delivered something old, and very ugly. As it happens, the 1920’s share more than just bigotry and nativist exclusionism with the world we live in now.
To be continued…