Salvatore V. DiCara: An Immigrant Story

By Lawrence S. DiCara

Dad came off a boat in New York City 100 years ago last month; he was thirteen months old. No agent of the United States government ever separated him from his mother. He was not teargassed. He was not fenced in a camp. It is appropriate to acknowledge his journey and comment regarding current immigration policy. 

Dad was lucky. He entered the United States before the nativist insurgency which arose after World War I, when the rising power of the KKK among other groups resulted in discriminatory changes to the immigration laws which had permitted effectively open access to most any European who was in good health.

The conventional wisdom of the day linked Italians and Eastern European immigrants to crime of all sorts, organized and unorganized. Thinking people advocated the passage of laws mandating sterilization of those considered “feeble.” Intelligent people supported legislation which would have prohibited any “mixing” of various ethnic groups. Among those proponents were former President Charles Eliot of Harvard and Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge. Yes, Henry Cabot Lodge, whose statue is on the State House Lawn around the spot where John Hancock’s house stood, not far from Horace Mann and Daniel Webster who guard the ceremonial center entrance to the Massachusetts State House.

The rhetoric used to describe the immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe was not dissimilar to the words written about the Irish two or three generations prior and which are written about immigrant people, and the poor in general, today. 

In 1916, Madison Grant, an active conservationist, who had degrees from Yale and Columbia published “The Passing of the Great Race.” He identified Northern Europeans “the blue-eyed, fair haired peoples of the North of Europe” as genetically superior to Southern Europeans “the dark-haired, dark eyed people.” The latter group includes my family. 

Charles Davenport feared an America “Darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature…more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, murder, rape and sex-immorality.” Davenport wrote to Grant in 1920 asking “Can we build a wall high enough around this country so as to keep out these cheaper races?” Perhaps some in Trump’s minyan have been reading history while not tweeting.

Jill Lepore’s recent revisionist history of the United States reminds us of the climate 100 years ago. She quotes Congressman Fred S. Purnell (R-Indiana), who said in the debate regarding immigration, “There is little or no similarity between the clear thinking, self-governing stocks that sired the American people and this stream of irresponsible and broken wreckage that is pouring into the lifeblood of America social and political diseases of the old world.” 

Henry James referred to Italian immigrants as “gross little aliens.” President Walker of MIT writing in the Yale Review described immigrants as “vast masses of filth…beaten men from beaten races.” Prescott Hall of the Immigration Restriction League considered the new immigrants “toiler, begger, thief and scum.”

Daniel Okrent’s recent volume, “The Guarded Gate,” reminds us of the linkages between eugenics, pseudo-scientific racism and nativist sentiments in the first decades of this past century. His research concluded that such antisemitic, racist, and anti-Catholic sentiment was not limited to the great unwashed, but included many educated people, some of whom, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Sanger, are considered heroes by many. 

Donald Trump may want to rewrite history, but he cannot deny that his paternal grandfather was an immigrant from Germany. He changed his name. [He was not Swedish, as Trump “wrote” in “The Art of the Deal.”]  

It is not surprising that Trump has installed as the Acting Citizenship and Immigration Services Director, Ken Cuccinelli, who appears to be ignorant of his own Italian heritage and is in the forefront of administrative efforts to limit immigration. Cuccinelli has gone so far as to suggest that the famous Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty be amended 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.” I can see why he and Stephen Miller are Trump favorites. Is this not a different message the sermon from one of my favorite priests? His sermon reminded us to show love to those who come to America seeking a new life and that God “does not make exceptions for only the ‘deserving poor’ or for those with proper papers.”

If one attends Trump’s so-called rallies, the tone is frenetic, just as it was in Europe in the 1930’s and also when George Wallace presided over such gatherings in the 1960s. All that is missing are references to purifying the nation. Okrent specifically confirms that Hitler was supportive of the theories promulgated by Madison Grant writing him that “The Book is My Bible.”  Why is it not a surprise that Hitler referred to the United States as “a mongrel nation”?

How different is the chant “Send Them Back” from a chant from a similar mob gathered in a stadium in Germany 80 years ago who would froth at the mouth at the suggestion of a Germany which would be “Judenrein”? Was it not rallies such as those which led to Kristallnacht? Was it not thinking regarding the superiority of some over others which brought about the Holocaust? Is today’s climate not unlike 100 years ago when some sought a reinterpretation of what it means to be an American and who sought to mold immigrants in their own image and likeness?

To the ruling class and those who accepted their theories, immigrant families such as mine were a good source of labor. Women would work in sweatshops and men would work construction; many Italians had especial skills in that area and still do (this author excluded). Many of the nation’s leading citizens believed 100 years ago that it was important that uneducated immigrants be Americanized and that children such as my father be taught a trade so they would not become dependent upon private charitable efforts or governmental assistance.

Dad did not spend much time in a settlement house.  He studied the violin. Dad did not learn a trade but somehow or other scraped together enough money to enroll at Northeastern University in the middle of the Depression, from which he graduated and became gainfully employed. He was a beneficiary of the co-op program. 

Dad became a good citizen. He did not commit any crimes. Once he received a parking ticket; his resident sticker was not on his rear windshield given that his car had been broken into, while he and my mother were at 9:00 a.m. Mass! He put on a suit, took the subway to City Hall, appealed the ticket and was successful. That was his only encounter with the law, other than fulfilling his civic obligation as a juror.

Although I cannot prove it, somewhere along our southern border, or perhaps at an airport at which flights from the Middle East arrive, there are young men and young women desirous of entering our country, and studying hard and working dutifully and raising children and becoming good citizens. Many of them are not unlike Sal DiCara. Should our nation not welcome them as they welcomed my father 100 years ago?

Larry DiCara is a Dorchester native and former member of the Boston City Council. He is a real estate and administrative law attorney in Boston.

Editor’s Note: Larry DiCara will be a speaker at the next meeting of the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council on Mon., Nov. 4, from 6:30 - 8 p.m., at the Mildred Ave Community Center. At-Large City Councillor Michelle Wu is also scheduled to speak. Please forward all questions to info.gmncouncil@gmail.com.