Undesirables: An Italian Immigration Story

By: Nicholas Santaniello

Case File: 54766/332

Immigrants: Giuseppi, Antonia, Grazio, Melina, and Maria Marsicovetere

Family Man

Giuseppi Marsicovetere’s surname was derived from the village in Southern Italy where he came from, as was the case with many Italian immigrants before and after him. The reasons for which he came to America were not much different from his fellow Italians either. Giuseppi’s story was part of a shared struggle. The late nineteenth century to early twentieth century was a time period of economic and political turmoil in Italy, as many of its citizens lived in poverty, especially those coming from rural villages. There was not a large amount of access to valuable resources, such as advanced technology, education, gainful employment, a stable food supply, and many other things. However, these things did exist in America, and many Italians found themselves sailing towards its shores.

Giuseppi first arrived in 1906 by himself. There are not too many details of what his exact occupation was. The only thing that is known was that he was a laborer who did some sort of manual work for low wages. This was yet another thing in common he had with many fellow Italians. After a couple of years, he returned to Italy to be with his wife, Antonia, who had fallen ill and needed to be tended to. During his time back in Italy, Antonia became pregnant and gave birth to their first child and daughter, Maria. After a couple of years in his home country, Giuseppi returned to America. He only planned on being in Italy temporarily, as he needed to go back to America and make money. He never relinquished his domicile and returned to work as soon as he arrived 1910. He could not afford to bring over his family, but he hoped to do so one day.

After four more consecutive years living in America, Giuseppi returned to his family once again on a temporary basis, hoping to return to America with them. Unfortunately, the year was 1914 and World War I broke out. Giuseppi was enlisted into the Italian Army and fought through the entirety of the conflict. He was honorably discharged from the Italian Army in 1919 after five years of service. During that time, his family had increased in size. A son named Grazio was born, followed by a daughter named Melina. By March 1920, Giuseppi had enough money to take his family with him back to America. Once again, his domicile was unrelinquished during his time away. The Marsicovetere family was looking forward to their new life together in America, but once they arrived at Ellis Island, they received a rude awakening.

Giuseppi and his family ended up being detained on the Island and were in danger of being debarred from entering the United States. The Immigration Act of 1917 imposed many new restrictions, one of which included a literacy test (from Section 3 of the Act). All immigrants had to be able to read 30 to 40 words in their native language. Giuseppi did not pass this test and was deemed illiterate. He and his family were therefore deemed “Likely to become a Public Charge.” This, along with many other provisions, was the United States’ way of keeping so-called “undesirables” from entering the country. To make matters worse, Grazio had fallen ill during the time they were coming across the ocean. He ended up dying in the hospital at Ellis Island at the age of four. There were no details about a cause of death in the case file, which is yet another disheartening aspect of this story. Giuseppi was 38 at the time, his wife 36, and his daughters, eleven and two respectively.

They were all interrogated and questioned extensively by Inspectors Toner and Burke and other members of the Bureau of Immigration. Officials also questioned relatives of theirs who were citizens and living in the country at the time, including Giuseppi’s cousin and Antonia’s father. When the Marsicoveteres were denied entry, they filed an appeal with the help of the defense team of Bouve and Parker, whom they hired as attorneys. Giuseppi had already lived in the U.S. two times. He had steady work, never had any health problems, had never been a public charge, and only brought his family to America after earning the sufficient funds. He also served in the Allied Forces in World War I, which the defense thought would also help.

However, what ultimately helped out Giuseppi and his family was an exemption in the 1917 Act that would allow them to ultimately win their appeal. The Seventh Proviso of the 1917 Act stated that aliens returning after a temporary absence to an unrelinquished United States domicile of seven consecutive years may be admitted with the discretion of the Secretary of Labor. Giuseppe never relinquished his domicile, thus this exemption applied to him. Therefore, the Marsicovetere family was allowed to be in the United States. Though tragedy struck, and the family was left with a huge void after Grazio’s passing, there was ultimately some triumph. Giuseppe’s family was with him in the United States, and they finally had a permanent home.

Welcome, Can You Read?

The literacy test was the primary reason behind the detainment of Giuseppi Marsicovetere and his family. Being deemed illiterate meant that officials concluded that he and his family would become public charges, thus they faced debarment. This document was the central factor to this case, and it represented the overall attitudes and rhetoric reflected in the 1917 Act.

Myron Gutman, “U.S. Social History: The 1917 Immigration Act,” February 16, 2016. Courtesy of Word Press. A sample literacy test (Italian with an English translation).

Aside from gainful employment, another reason many of these immigrants came over was to have access to the valuable resources America had to offer. One of those resources was access to good public education, so they could learn the language and learn how to read. Many did not have that in their home lands. Back then, many immigrants, particularly coming from rural areas in Southern and Eastern Europe, were impoverished and poorly educated, so many of them never learned how to read.

Potential immigrants had to be able to read the 30 to 40 words on the small card in order to be admitted into the United States. The only way that people could get out of taking this test was if they were facing religious persecution back in their home country. This was not the case for Giuseppi Marsicovetere.

The 1917 Act seemed very biased toward working-class people and people coming from certain regions of the world. Italians in particular were victimized by this provision, as well as the other provisions that were outlined in Section 3 of the 1917 Immigration Act, which aimed to keep out “idiots, imbeciles, poor, beggars, criminals, polygamists, anarchists, people with physical and mental disabilities, the sick, prostitutes,” and more. This is what the government and society thought about this wave of immigration coming in at the time. This language marginalized the immigrants and made them seem subhuman. This was also an age in which nativism and eugenics were growing rapidly. Italians, such as Giuseppi, were a particular group that was targeted by these prejudicial and discriminatory practices.

The Big Picture: Why It Matters

The case of Giuseppi and the Marsicovetere family was very significant historically. It was a tremendous representation of the Italian immigration experience. What Giuseppi and his family went through was a shared experience for many people within their ethnic group.

Return migration is a significant aspect of this case, as Giuseppi went back to Italy on two separate occasions before settling in America permanently. Out of all the ethnic groups that immigrated to the United States, Italians had the highest amount of people going back and forth between their home country and America. Although many Italians eventually settled permanently in America like the Marsicovetere family, there were plenty of others who went back to Italy and stayed there for good. The Italians led all ethnic groups in this category as well. Many Bureau workers were suspicious of Italians for that reason, thinking that the Italians were going to look for a temporary job, leech off the U.S. Government for a little while, then go back. This possibly could have played a role in Giuseppi’s detention and intense interrogation. Many Italians faced the same kind of discrimination. That, along with being involved in organized crime, were the biggest stigmas against this ethnic group.

Another key aspect of Giuseppi’s story worth noting is the various push-pull factors that led to his back and forth migration. These included the deteriorating economic and political conditions in Italy, the industrialization and job opportunities being created in America, his family back home, and the outbreak of World War I. Some other common push-pull factors for immigrants included famine, religious persecution, contract labor laws, and others. Giuseppi was a low-wage laborer, so his low socioeconomic status played a role in all of this as well.

Another thing worth noting is that Italians were a heavily marginalized group at this time. They were seen as non-white, in some sort of racially ambiguous category alongside the Chinese. They were often called “The Chinese of Europe.” The nativist ideas of 1917 Act were evident in this case and it was only a sign of things to come. The 1921 Quota Act and 1924 Johnson Reed Act led to even further immigration restriction and discrimination towards these ethnic groups. This case may have happened almost a century ago, but it has stood the test of time and remains relevant today.

Additional Sources

Bayor, Ronald H. Encountering Ellis Island: How European Immigrants Entered America. Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Cinel, Dino. The National Integration of Italian Return Migration, 1870–1929. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Creller, Jessi and Davis Tucker. “1917 Immigration Act.” University of Washington-Bothell Library, October 2007, http://library.uwb.edu/Static/USimmigration/1917_immigration_act.html.

Fron, Patricia M. “Matter Of Newton, In Deportation Proceedings.” U.S. Department of Justice, October 5th, 1979, https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/eoir/legacy/2012/08/17/2733.pdf.