Invasion of the Garlic Eaters
Sen. Rick Santorum said it the other day. He's not against immigrants. Immigrants have been a vitalizing force in America. But, those who come here, he said must "do it by the rules."
Joe Vento said much the same thing. Vento, owner of Geno's Steaks in South Philly, caused a international stir when he posted a sign in his window that said, simply:
This is America.
When ordering, speak English.
It was aimed, Vento said, not at foreign tourists, but at locals (read: Mexicans) who had infiltrated the Italian Market area and were refusing to assimilate -- learn the language, act more like Americans.
What he wanted, as Vento explained to one reporter, was to "go back to the 19th century, play by those rules."
The implication was clear.
Unlike the illegals of today, our immigrant ancestors came to this country legally, worked hard at assimilating, and became true Americans. They played by the rules.
It's a vision that resembles a Hallmark Hall of Fame episode.
Working title: American Dreamers.
And most of it is pure bunk.
The facts are these:
Most of the immigrants who came to America were neither educated nor wealthy nor refined. They were illiterate peasants who were castoffs from their countries of origin. They truly were, to quote Emma Lazarus, the "wretched refuse" of foreign shores.
Those who moved to the cities lived in squalid enclaves. They were viewed -- variously -- as dangerous, drunken, smelly, swarthy, stupid, inferior, mongrels. They labored at menial jobs in horrid conditions for sub-standard pay.
First-generation immigrants rarely assimilated and died with only a tenuous grasp of English. The children of urban immigrants often tended to crime, particularly the Irish and the Italians.
It has taken some immigrant groups -- especially non-Anglo, non-English speaking groups -- four or five generations to cast off their label as aliens.
Why did they come here, then and now?
To quote Willy Sutton, because this is where the money was. This is where the jobs were. This is where some relative lived -- a brother, an aunt, a sweetheart, a few cousins from your village.
In some cases, they were seeking riches. In most cases, they simply were trying to avoid starvation or death at the hands of their enemies. America -- a vast, booming adolescent nation -- was the place that offered hope for a better life.
How did native Americans react to these new arrivals? Always with fear, often with repulsion, sometimes with hatred.
Some 19th century immigrants -- the Irish, to be precise -- drove natives into a frenzy of fear and loathing, not only because they were an inferior people, but because they were Roman Catholic and, therefore, slaves to the Pope and determined to hand over this nation to a ruler seated in the Vatican.
It was a fear put to rest -- among most, but not all Americans -- only after 1960, with the election of John F. Kennedy.
The Irish didn't help by being -- unlike the more docile Germans -- aggressive and obstinate, prone to drink and violence. In other words, when struck, they hit back.
At least the Irish spoke English, or some pidgin variety of it.
The immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who came later in the 19th century did not. Nor were they fair-haired or blue-eyed. They were dark, swarthy, strange folk -- alien to the core.
My great-aunt Josephine, who grew up in late 19th century South Philly, had a name for the Italians immigrants that aptly summarized her disdain. She called them "The Garlic Eaters."
John Fiske, the American historian who popularized Darwin's work in the U.S. put it succinctly. In traveling in Italy, he reported back: "The lowest Irish are far above the level of these creatures."
By the late 1800's. nativists had a new vocabulary to discuss the immigrant problem -- the language of science. Anthropological studies, precise and "scientific" measurement of craniums and Darwinian theory were used to demonstrate that these new arrivals were inferior peoples, lacking in mental capacity and unsuited for citizenship.
For instance, here are the observations of a Professor Edward A. Ross, observing Italian arrivals: "Steerage passengers from a Naples boat show a distressing frequency of low foreheads, open mouths, weak chins, poor features, small or knobby crania and backless heads!"
The fear, then and now, was that these aliens would intermingle with American stock and create a mongrel race. (In fairness, that's exactly what happened.)
As the scholar Carl Wittke noted in the early 20th century: "What disasterous results awaited a country in which 50 Roumanian or Italian peasants would have a perfect army of offsprings in several generations, whereas the stock of 50 Harvard or Yale men would probably be extinct within the same length of time."
What Wittke could not foresee was that Harvard men would later marry the grand-daughters of those Italian immigrants and send their quasi-knobby craniumed offspring to Yale.
Procreation, it turns out, is an agent of assimilation.
Between 1880 and 1920, scholars estimate that one in three of all the Jews living in eastern Europe emigrated to American, a total of two million. In the 10 years between 1900 and 1910, more than two million Italians arrived in the United States.
This wave of aliens repulsed Americans. Political commentators debunked the "myth of the melting pot" and predicted these late arrivals would never assimilate. A mongrel nation was on the horizon unless something was done to stop it. They found a way.
After World War I, scientific racialism and political isolationism combined to create a rigid quota system to stifle immigration. The quotas, particularly the ones in a 1924 law passed by Congress, targeted southern and eastern Europeans.
When the senator's father, Aldo Santorum, and his parents entered this country in 1931, they were among the lucky few.
The quota system had reduced the legal flow of Italian immigrants from 200,000 a year to 3,845 a year after 1924, though there is evidence that double that number entered illegally each year.
As to the rules prior to that, there were none to speak of.
With few exceptions -- an 1882 U.S. law that excluded the Chinese being the most notable -- there were no restrictions on immigration between 1802 and 1921.
No Green cards. No literacy tests. No quotas. No loyalty oaths. No nothing.
If you were white and your were reasonably healthy, you were free to enter. After five years, we were permitted to become a citizen (and your local ward leader would be more than happy to file the papers for you, so you could vote for the candidate of their choice.)
You did not have to show English-language proficiency. You did not have to demonstrate an understanding of American government and history. Hell, you didn't even have to be able to read.
You were a citizen.
Between 1820 and 1920, more than 30 million immigrants came to the United States under these "rules."
They included all of my ancestors. They probably included yours.
Here is what Benjamin Franklin thought of certain immigrants of his day. He makes Joey Vento sound like Pericles.