Maddalena Marinari: The Fight for Immigration Reform Then and Now

Today we welcome a guest post from Maddalena Marinari, author of Unwanted: Italian and Jewish Mobilization against Restrictive Immigration Laws, 1882-1965, available now from UNC Press.

In the late nineteenth century, Italians and Eastern European Jews joined millions of migrants around the globe who left their countries to take advantage of the demand for unskilled labor in rapidly industrializing nations, including the United States. Many Americans of northern and western European ancestry regarded these newcomers as biologically and culturally inferior—unassimilable—and by 1924, the United States had instituted national origins quotas to curtail immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Weaving together political, social, and transnational history, Maddalena Marinari examines how, from 1882 to 1965, Italian and Jewish reformers profoundly influenced the country’s immigration policy as they mobilized against the immigration laws that marked them as undesirable.

In this post, Marinari describes how the obstacles faced by immigration reform activists in the early to mid twentieth century are similar to those faced by their counterparts today.

Unwanted is now available in paper and ebook editions.


The Fight for Immigration Reform Then and Now: The Strength and Limitations of Interethnic Alliances

Activists pushing for more humane immigration reform today are deploying remarkably similar tactics to those that Italian and Jewish activists used to challenge the draconian immigration system Congress created in 1924. Then, like now, activists put pressure on their elected officials, went to court to challenge unfair provisions of the law and harsh enforcement practices, and kept the need for immigration reform in the public eye. In the face of continuing rebuke, Italian Americans and Jewish Americans waged one educational campaign after another in the hope of persuading their fellow Americans to support immigration reform. They emphasized the contributions immigrants made to U.S. society and highlighted the country’s long history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. When all else failed, they took to the streets to protest.

Then, like now, immigration reform activists faced the same challenge. Italian and Jewish reformers struggled to create successful interethnic alliances. While both groups succeeded in recruiting support from outside their communities, including legislators, prominent Americans in business, culture, and religion, and even the White House, presenting a united front with advocates representing other immigrant groups proved elusive. Structural racism and a legislative structure that favored insiders made it difficult for them to conceive of an inclusive immigration agenda and build strong alliances with groups with different bargaining positions.

Then, like now, immigration reform activists faced the same challenge. Italian and Jewish reformers struggled to create successful interethnic alliances.

The debate over the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act clearly revealed how difficult it was for critics of immigration restriction to find common ground. Restrictionist legislators exploited these intergroup differences to divide immigration reform activists. Senator Patrick McCarran (D-NV), one of the sponsors of the bill, proved particularly adept at demonizing the harshest critics of his bill. He targeted Jewish advocates relentlessly in and out of Congress and described them as a “radical group, which for many years, has been dedicated to the destruction of our protective immigration system.” Behind the scenes, McCarran cajoled some of the Catholic groups that originally opposed his bill by promising special legislation for their groups and agreed to end Asian exclusion to appeal to representatives of immigrant groups from Asia. As Mike Masaoka of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) put it, “anything is better than nothing” for a group that had not received the same consideration as Europeans. Masaoka also criticized liberal advocates who had attacked McCarran’s bill but had remained silent on another discriminatory bill targeting Mexican immigrants. Masaoka’s scathing critique laid bare what he viewed as European Americans’ unwillingness to admit the self-serving nature of their brand of liberalism and interethnic coalition politics.

At the same time, McCarran’s strategy to divide and conquer also pointed to the challenges that immigration reform advocates faced in seeking reform. When he pushed for his 1952 immigration bill, the senior senator from Nevada chaired the Subcommittee on Immigration and Naturalization, the Judiciary Committee, the Appropriations Subcommittee, and the Subcommittee on Foreign Aid. McCarran thus controlled much of the legislation considered in Congress and did not hesitate to go against his party, forcing activists to negotiate with him. Although Truman vetoed his bill, McCarran successfully overturned the veto because of his enormous legislative influence. Activists today face similar obstacles to reform as a small number of individuals wield much of the power over the country’s immigration policy with little to no accountability. Even bi-partisan proposals founder on the rocks of key legislators’ agendas.


Photo by John Noltner for Gustavus Adolphus College

Maddalena Marinari is associate professor of history at Gustavus Adolphus College and coeditor of A Nation of Immigrants Reconsidered: U.S. Society in An Age of Restriction, 1924–1965. Follow her on Twitter.