Frank J. Cavaioli

Farmingdale State College, SUNY



From the colonial period to the present, Italians have migrated

to the American nation, but that migration has been irregular.

Throughout modern history Italy has been the source of emigration,

especially to the United States. In recent years, Italy’s population has

stabilized and immigration to the United States is minimal. This essay

will examine the irregular pattern of Italian immigration to the United

States, its causes, and why and when it developed. American

immigration policy will be examined as it affected Italian immigration.

Interwoven in the text will be official census data accompanied by an

analysis of that data. Finally, concluding commentary will be made

concerning the degree of Italian (American) identity in the

contemporary, diverse United States.

From its earliest foundation, and through continuous

development, immigration has been the driving force that has

characterized the history of the United States. The people movement to

American shores remains a phenomenon that no nation can match.

Immigration is a two-way process: “immigrants not only become

incorporated into a new society, they also transform it. As they have

become incorporated into American society, immigrants have made and

remade America, and are still making her still.”1

In contrast, emigration has characterized the history of modern

Italy, especially to the United States, which is the focus of this essay. In

recent years, however, Italian immigration to the United States has been

declining, and the composition of these new arrivals has changed.

(Italy’s population has stabilized, simultaneously experiencing

immigration from North Africa and Eastern Europe.) “Citizens of the

world, today’s Italian immigrants in America are well-educated, careerdriven,

and focused on preserving their traditions and language.” This

unfolding trend differs from what occurred a century ago, when the poor

marked Italian immigration to the United States, illiterate, and unskilled.

The world then witnessed 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. These Italian

immigrants were motivated for the same reasons that characterized

nearly all immigrants who have migrated to the American nation: to

advance to a better life in a free society protected by a constitution in

which the rights of the individual are supreme.2

Undergirding this view is British-born historian Henry

Bamford Parkes’ belief that

American civilization has certain unique features that

differentiate it from any European country. The culture of the

United States has been the product of two main factors: of the

impulses and aspirations that caused men and women to leave

their European homes and cross the Atlantic; and of the

influences of the American Natural environment.3

American historian Frederick Jackson Turner also emphasized the

importance of the frontier (environment) in the development of

democratic institutions in the United States. The frontier transformed the

European into a free American. He stated: “American democracy is

fundamentally the outcome of the experience of the American people in

dealing with the West.” Thus, the environment, not heredity, shaped the


Today’s immigrants from Italy, though far fewer than those who

came here during the high tide of migration, arrive by jet plane, are

better educated, retain their language, and are proud of their national

heritage. However, like the earlier immigrants, they regard America as a

“meritocracy,” as a land of greater opportunity where cumbersome

bureaucracies do not hinder advancement. Moreover, it is argued that

today’s Italian immigrant, because of economic, social, and political

reasons, find it difficult to identify with the more than four million who

arrived during the period of 1880 to 1920.5

In looking back to colonial America, though present and

contributing to the rise of the United States and its culture, few Italians

had settled in North American before 1820. Those who were here

represented the elite classes of missionaries, travelers, teachers, artists,

and other professionals. From 1820, when immigrants began to be

counted, to 1880, Italian immigration increased progressively to a total

of 81,249. This number, within six decades, was relatively small

compared to what would follow. During the 1880 to 1920 era, 4,114,603

Italians arrived out of the total number of 23,465,374 immigrants who

came to the United States. Within the years of 1901 to 1910 alone a

record-breaking 2,045,374 Italians arrived out of the total of 8,795,386

of what was then new immigration. In the decade that followed,

1,109,524 Italians arrived. The source of this remarkable influx of

hardworking Italians originated mostly from the overpopulated


mezzogiorno, the Italian south. These immigrants were poor contadini or

peasants, traditional, and lacking sophistication. Agriculture in Italy was

no longer profitable, methods of production were primitive, and taxes

were oppressive. Their loyalty lay with their region (campanilismo),

dominated by local dialects and practices; they lacked a sense of

patriotism to Italy, which had achieved political unification as late as

1861. The harsh forces of social, economic, and political conditions

pushed them to leave, and the attractive opportunities of a democratic

and rapidly developing urban/industrial society pulled them to America.6

The Census Bureau considers anyone who is not born a U.S. Citizen to

be foreign-born.

The modern phenomenon of mass migration from Italy reached

numerous worldwide destinations. Sources estimate that nearly 26

million Italians left their native land during the period of 1876 to 1976.

At its height, Italy “hemorrhaged peasants,” according to Erik

Amfitheatrof. The United States received the highest number of Italians.

Luciano J. Iorizzo and Salvatore Mondello commented: “City streets in

the United States became transplanted into Italian towns and provinces,

where old parochialisms, including endogamy, flourished. This situation

encouraged more and more Italians to set out for America.” The Italian

government attempted—but failed—to stop this exodus. Robert F.

Foerster chronicled and analyzed this movement, covering the period

between 1876 and 1919 in his seminal study The Italian Emigration of

Our Times (1919).7 Foerster was the first to give serious study of this

movement through his Harvard doctoral dissertation, Emigration from

Italy with Special Reference to the United States (1909).

The huge influx of southern, central, and eastern European

immigrants caused concern within the host society, which wondered

how they would assimilate. The newcomers settled in urban areas, which

produced severe, crowded conditions at a time when the Jeffersonian

model of an agrarian-rural society was highly valued by the host

society’s influential groups. Jefferson, and others, argued that

agricultural societies produced virtuous governments. On the other hand,

cities were considered “moral cesspools” marked by corruption,

materialism, and commercialism. Organized labor, dominant religious

groups, racists, and others motivated by eugenics sought to protect the

American system from this invasion of people they considered to be of

“low moral character,” distinct from the people who came from northern

and northwestern Europe. There had been pre-1860 movements driven

by nativists, such as the Know Nothings, but attempts to exclude the new

alien groups accelerated after 1880 and would lead to the restrictive

immigration laws of the 1920s. Early successes on the part of anti-


immigration forces resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and

laws that barred anarchists, imbeciles, and others thought to be wards of

society. Further, a bill that incorporated a literacy test passed either the

Senate or the House 32 times, and on four occasions was passed by both

bodies, only to be vetoed each time. Finally, the bill signed by President

Wilson in 1917 provided a literacy test whereby no immigrant over

sixteen years old who could not read English or some other language

would be admitted to the United States. The literacy test discriminated

against poor and uneducated immigrants. In an attempt to justify the

literacy test, it was argued that only three percent of the old immigrants

were illiterate, and that more than half of the immigrants from Sicily and

Italy were illiterate.8

Contributing to the sentiment of nativism and arguments for

immigration exclusion were the writings of social scientists that based

many of their arguments on Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859).

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), the prominent English philosopher and

sociologist, expounded on the pseudo-scientific belief of the “survival of

the fittest,” as developed from Darwinian biology. American

intellectuals such as William Graham Sumner, George Bancroft, Herbert

Baxter Adams, Francis Lieber, and John W. Burgess promoted the

concept of Social Darwinism, which asserted that through the process of

natural selection, Anglo Saxon, Nordic, and Germanic people were

superior to Italians, Jews, Greeks, and Slavs. They alleged that the

advanced gene pool of the old immigrants must be preserved. William

Graham Sumner stated, “If we do not like the survival of the fittest, we

have only one possible alternative, and that is the survival of the

unfittest.” Madison Grant wrote The Passing of the Great Race (1916),

which elaborated on this racist theory. Henry Cabot Lodge (1850-1924),

the powerful legislator from Massachusetts, argued the dominance of the

great “English racial strain” was being threatened by the new masses

arriving at the nation’s shores. He used his influence to formulate a

restrictive immigration policy. Another leader, Francis A. Walker,

President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, warned of the

foreign peril causing labor unrest, the new immigrants could not be

assimilated, and were “beaten men from beaten races representing the

worst failures in the struggle for existence.” The Dillingham

Commission (named for Vermont Senator William P. Dillingham),

created by Congress in 1907 as a result of public pressure, produced a

forty-one volume report in 1911 on the “new” immigration that

confirmed the biased view that northern and northwestern Europeans

were superior to the southern, central, and southeastern Europeans.9

Among the latter, Italians were added to the prevailing opinion in


America that believed African Americans, Native Americans, and

Mexican Americans were inferior.

The public debate over an immigration policy that began in the

late nineteenth century finally concluded in the 1920s. In May 1921,

President Warren G. Harding signed the first bill establishing a

restrictive European immigration policy. It established for three years a

quota system whereby the number of new immigrants permitted to enter

was three percent of the number of people of that nationality already in

the United States in 1910. This law restricted the annual number of

immigrants to 357,802. Three years later, President Calvin Coolidge

signed the National Origins Quota Act of 1924 that limited each

country’s annual quota to two percent of that national population in the

United States in 1890. It effectively reduced southern, central, and

eastern European immigration. (Special humanitarian legislation was

adopted between 1952 to 1962 allowing 140,000 Italians to enter the

United States from war-torn Italy.) In 1929, a new National Origins Act

was adopted; the total number of immigrants was reduced to 150,000 to

be distributed to the European nations in proportion to the national

origins of the 1920 American population. The McCarran-Walter Act of

1952 replaced the 1929 law over President Harry Truman’s veto, but still

maintained the national origins system by simplifying the quota formula

to one-sixth of one percent of the foreign-born population in the 1920

United States Census. This quota system was replaced in 1965 when the

new comprehensive immigration law was adopted that placed all nations

on an equal basis and eliminated the national origins quota system.10

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Hart-Celler

Immigration and Nationality Reform Law on Liberty Island in New York

Harbor on October 3, 1965, he said, “Today the golden door of

immigration has never stood wider.” President Johnson praised the

leadership role that Italian Americans played in lobbying for this reform.

Of course, Italians had the most to gain by eliminating the old system

through the establishment of a more just law. World War II had

devastated Italy, and its annual quota under the old system amounted to

the low figure of 5,666. However, there were nearly 300,000 Italians on

the immigration waiting list in 1965 hoping to enter the United States

under the new law. The State Department indicated that 60,000 Italians

would be admitted by 1968. After that period, the annual rate would be

20,000, which was the maximum rate for any one nation. The 20,000

figure did not include “special immigrants” classified as spouses, minor

children, and parents of U.S. citizens. When Public Law 89-236 took full

effect in 1968, the following annual figures from Italy represented a

dramatic shift in favor of Italians migrating to the United States.11


The Impact of 1965 Immigration and Nationality Reform Law:

1968 - 25,882

1969 - 27,033

1970 - 27,369

1971 - 22,818

1972 - 22,400

1973 - 22,300

1974 - 15,000

1975 - 11,000

Italian immigration peaked in 1970 as the law took full effect, but it

gradually declined as demand was met. This general downward trend

would continue to the present day, especially as Italy’s economy


An examination of the Italian foreign-born population in the

United States from 1850 to 2000 provides a more sweeping pattern of

Italian immigration. The following data, based on decennial counts,

show the evolving increases of Italian immigrants (now more

appropriately classified as Italian Americans) present in the United

States from 1850 to 1930, and then a dramatic decline from 1960 to the

year 2000. The years of 1910, 1920, and 1930 are clearly significant

showing an upward trend into seven figures. The declining numbers in

the years of 1960 and 1970, though still more than a million people,

reflect the waning of the first significant generation of Italian


Region and Country or Area of Birth of the

Italian Foreign-Born Population:13

1850 - 3,679

1860 - 11,677

1870 - 17,147

1880 - 44,230

1890 - 182,580

1900 - 484,027

1910 - 1,343,125

1920 - 1,610,113

1930 - 1,790,429

1940 - 1,623,850

1950 - 1,427,580

1960 - 1,256,999

1970 - 1,008,533

1980 - 831,922

1990 - 580,592

2000 - 604,447