Italian Immigration to the US Term Paper

Pages: 11 (3281 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 13  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: American History

Italian Immigration Late 19th to Early 20th Century

Italian Immigration to the U.S.

During the latter part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century, the United States experienced a mass influx of Italian migration. Between 1880 and 1920, more than 4 million Italians immigrated to the United States. One of the chief reasons Italians left Italy was because of poverty; many Italians hoped to come to America just long enough to make enough money to change their situations; many did not plan on staying permanently; however there were political reasons as well. This paper will explore some of the reasons for the mass migration of Italians to the U.S. And the impact their immigration had on the United States. The paper will also discuss some of the challenges that Italian immigrants faced -- for example, pervasive racism. The assimilation for many Italians was not an easy one and This paper will attempt to discuss the biggest challenges and how the United States has changed in terms of accepting immigrants and how it has more progress to make.

The United States has been characterized by immigration since its founding in 1776, and even before then, America had attracted immigrants from all over the world (Di Benedetto 2000). Cavaioli (2008) defines immigration as a two-way process: immigrants integrate into a new society, and they also transform that society. Since the very beginning, immigrants have made and then re-made American society, and they are still making and re-making it to this very day (2008). The Italian immigrants who came to America beginning in 1870 until approximately 1920 had a significant impact on their own country's history, and they also made a huge impact on America's society and history. While today we know Italian-Americans to be well-educated, career-driven people, the Italian immigrants who first came to America were for the most part poor, uneducated, illiterate, and unskilled. Sowell (1981) notes that by as late as 1900, the illiteracy rate for southern Italy was 70%, more than ten times that of England, France, or Germany at the same time. As well, southern Italians were openly hostile to education and even disparaged it in the home (1981). These attitudes, Sowell (1981) claims, would persist among Italian-American immigrants and to a certain degree their descendents. The United States became witness to "a massive flow of Italians from a heavily populated society dominated by regional and ruling class interests, and a government that ignored the needs of its people" (2008).

One of the most obvious peculiarities of the Italian immigration to the U.S. is the fact that one can clearly outline the migratory trends and waves. De Benedetto (2000) notes that the first wave began with the colonists in the 1600s and lasted until 1820; the second wave began in 1820 and lasted until 1870s, which saw the arrival of some 2.5 million immigrants between 1830 and 1850 alone; the third wave was from 1870 until 1960; and, the fourth wave, beginning in the 1970s is still going on today (2000). However, some of the biggest peculiarities in Italian emigration to the United States seems to be the time from about 1870 until 1920: for example, most of the Italian immigrants were rural people who would go on to become urban people; little enclaves of Italians separated by their regions back home in Italy would cluster together and form communities; and, Italians adaptation to America would be much more difficult than it was for any other group of immigrants during this timeframe.

Beginning around the year 1870, births in Italy were rapidly increasing while death rates were rapidly decreasing (Mintz 2007). This population growth along with poverty and natural disasters such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which burned down the town of Naples, and Mount Etna (2007) spurred one of the biggest migrations to the United States in history (2007); the United States became the largest single receiver of Italian immigrants in the world (Oracle 2010). The year 1871 is typically considered the official year of the mass migration from southern Italy because of the fact that Italy had become a unified nation with a new democratic institution -- yet the south did not enjoy any of the benefits from the new development (Rapczynski 2010).

Southern Italy, where most of the immigrants came from during the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, had not been treated as well by nature or man throughout history (Sowell 1981). The major accomplishments of the Italian Renaissance were of northern Italian origins and really did not impact the south. Columbus, Dante, Michelangelo, and Rossini were all northern Italians (1981) and the history of the Roman Empire -- "the glory that was Rome" -- meant nothing to southern Italian peasants (1981). Sowell (1981) notes that Spartacus' rebellion of 90,000 slaves happened in southern Italy as well as other uprisings over centuries of history -- however, all brutally crushed as their wasn't any sufficient unity among the oppressed peoples of the region to gain a strong movement.

For centuries the southern Italians had suffered. The agricultural aspect alone was incredibly bleak: the land was not irrigated nor were there trees being planted to stop erosion and floods and soil quality was poor. There were also financial burdens: taxes had increased and the economy was stagnant. Even more devastating: disease like cholera and malaria were killing southern Italians at an alarming rate (2010). With little choice, the thousands of chiefly southern Italians who made their way to the United States and passed through Ellis Island would forever change the city of New York and other cities such as Philadelphia -- however, the transition for the immigrants would not be an easy one as they were subject to pervasive racism, crowded and filthy living condition, and severe lack of nutrition (2010). Despite all the harsh realities of their new beginning, Italian immigrants -- like other groups of immigrants (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Greeks, Mexicans and Slavs) (2007) -- would make the United States their permanent homes and change the way that Americans view immigrants; though the change would not be easy.

Historians use the term "birds of passage" to describe the kinds of immigrants who never had the intention of making the United States their permanent home (Mintz 2007). The Italian immigrants who came to America before 1900 were chiefly men (approximately 78%) (2007) between the ages of 24 and 45 (Rapczynski 2010); they had left their families behind -- parents, wives, and children -- in order to find work and eventually return to Italy with enough money to take care of their families. The majority of these "birds of passage" came to America in the early spring when temperatures were becoming warmer; they would work until the end of the fall, before temperatures dropped, and then they would go back home to their gentler climates in Italy for the winter (2007). Approximately 20 to 30% of those Italians who went back stayed in Italy permanently (2007). The return of Italians to Italy affected Italian-Americans who remained, as well the people and culture back in Italy. "Those from America took back to Italy not only material wealth but also different views of the world -- including more appreciation of education" (Sowell 1981).

Most of the Italian immigrants who came to America looked at the journey as purely a way to continue their traditional lives back home; they were not, in any way, leaving Italy as an expression of rejection -- even though the living conditions were by no means ideal there. But whereas the Irish immigrants were able to "merge" into the mainstream quite easily, because they were "white" and they wanted to become American citizens and had come to America as settlers rather than as sojourners, the Italians did not "merge" into mainstream life (Takaki 2008). Only 10% of Irish immigrants went back to Ireland, while Takaki (2008) notes that the Italians had a return rate ranging from 40 to 60%. Perhaps it was because of the Italian desire to return home to their cultures and traditions that made the Italian immigration plight so rough.

The racism that the Italians endured wasn't all that different from the racism that other groups such as the Chinese, Japanese, Africans and Jews had to endure (Takaki 2008). Rapczynski (2010) notes that the discrimination that these immigrants faced stemmed from a rising anxiety about large-scale immigration. This anxiety started to influence a political response by the middle of the 19th century. In 1840s and 1850s, the "Know-Nothing Party," a nativist American political party that created a movement out of the fear of too many immigrants in America, described immigrants as paupers and wanted a major curtailment in citizenship privileges (2008). The most frequent suggestion was to require a 21-year period for naturalization and ban any foreign-born individuals from holding any major office (2008).

Rapczynski (2008) states that the Italian immigrants who came to America in the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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