|Italian immigration into the United States began around the 1880s, numbering approximately 300,000, and steadily rose through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eventually coming to a taper around the 1920s by which time more than 4 million Italians had set out for a new life on American soil. Comprising more than 10 percent of the nation’s foreign-born population, Italian-Americans quickly created enclaves and communities across the Eastern seaboard, most famous of which being Ellis Island. The dramatic surge in immigration was due to a variety of complex factors; decades of civil unrest, internal strife and widespread poverty and violence drove Italians, especially those in the poorer rural Southern Italy and island of Sicily, to seek livable socioeconomic conditions. Where initially most Italian immigrants were Northern Italian merchants and artisans, the majority of those immigrating rapidly became farmers, laborers, and others who had been left without work or aid during extensive economic crisis. |
Historically, America’s attitude towards immigrant populations has always been relatively hostile – alongside nationalistic and xenophobic rejection of foreign cultures, religions and ways of life, the economic space that poor migrant populations occupied was perceived as a threat to many working-class Americans. Fresh off the heels of massive economic upturn and urbanization from the American Industrial Revolution, a population of impoverished and relatively socioeconomically-immobile laborers were desirable to wealthy industrialists and factory owners, as they could be paid substandard wages. Similarly, Italians were encouraged to join the American military with the promise of financial stability and citizenship – which is how my family line became American. The presence of a new population in the labor force was seen by many Americans as a threat to their jobs – a narrative that is a constant in nearly every reaction to immigrant populations in America through the present day. This undercurrent of economic motivation in xenophobic reactions to immigrant populations can most blatantly seen in massive waves of hatred towards Latino immigrants, specifically Mexican-Americans, that have been a particularly prevalent part of the national political dialogue as of the past two decades. Though discrimination against Latino populations is far, far older than today’s rhetoric, discrimination and violence that was inflicted on Italian-Americans parallels that inflicted on Latino and Mexican-American communities. Both have faced constant discriminatory attacks on an individual level for aspects of daily life such as speaking their native tongue or participating in cultural traditions. However, on a broader level, their populations have suffered acts of hate crime and domestic terrorism – from one of the worst mass lynchings in American history in 1891, causing the death of eleven Italian-Americans, to the El Paso mass shooting in 2021, leading to the deaths of 23 people and injury of nearly two dozen others. Looking back on these historical parallels informs the way that we combat discriminatory attitudes towards migrant populations today – if we stay aware of the fears that spark this behavior, we are able to push initiatives that can help create an ideal social climate for immigrants in the future.