Maddalena Marinari: Whose Family is Worthy of Reuniting in the United States?

"Unwanted" by Maddalena Marinari

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 surveys the history of family reunion in U.S. immigration policy.

Unwanted is now available in paper and ebook editions.


Whose Family is Worthy of Reuniting in the United States?

Like a century ago, the stalemate over immigration reform has caused long waiting lists, family separation, and hardship for those who leave and those who stay behind. Many of the immigrants targeted by the rigid immigration system that emerged in the 1920s often took riskier journeys to enter the country illegally. U.S. immigration laws also inspired other countries to pass similar legislation, thus creating a global regime of restriction. The impact of these earlier efforts reverberates to this day as we live in a world resurgent with walls, fences, detention centers, and heightened security that make mobility difficult and, for some, next to impossible. In a vicious cycle, increased border security creates the conditions for riskier journeys and harsher enforcement.

In a climate where immigrant groups were on the defensive and divided, family reunion became the heart of advocates’ arguments for a more humane policy. By 1965, thanks in part to the efforts of activists like the leaders of the American Committee for Italian Migration and the American Jewish Committee, family reunion represented one of the few issues around which restrictionists and antirestrictionists could find some common ground. Under pressure, Congressional leaders of both parties ultimately accepted family reunification as a loophole in their restrictionist and quota agendas. The restrictionist immigration acts of 1917, 1924, and 1952 all made exceptions for family members and created a preference system that allowed for family reunion. Despite its shortcomings, the Immigration Act of 1965 passed because reformers proposed a bill that replaced the overtly racist national origins quota system with one based on the idea of family reunification. In all of these instances, liberal reformers highlighted the suffering of separated families to reach consensus among themselves and find common ground with restrictionists.

In a major departure from the past, today’s immigrants can no longer assume that legislators will prioritize or even consider family reunion in their negotiations. The restrictionist backers of the 1965 Immigration Act believed that the emphasis on family reunification in the law would preserve the predominance of European immigrants at a time when 85 percent of the U.S. population was white. When the primary beneficiaries of these family provisions shifted to immigrants from Asia, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and, more recently, Africa, nativists made it a priority to weaken any provision favoring family reunion and made immigrants with skills and safety a priority. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton administrations passed legislation that limited family reunion, privileged immigrants with skills, and criminalized certain immigrants, especially those from south of the border. By 9/11, the United States had the infrastructure, the policies, and the laws to target, police, and deport each new immigrant threat du jour. Since 2017, the executive and Congress have further eroded family reunion as a cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy.

In rejecting family reunion, today’s restrictionists have deprived supporters of humane immigration reform of one of their most compelling arguments on behalf of immigrants. As a result, contemporary immigration activists struggle to move Congress and segments of the general public despite the daily heartrending stories and videos of forced separations and the impact that a policy of zero tolerance has on families, and especially on children.


Maddalena Marinari
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.