Luisa would have preferred to never leave home. Her husband had gone to the U.S. about a dozen years earlier, and she and their children had managed to live on the remittances he sent back, but things were tougher since their only son had joined her husband a few years ago. And the situation at home was deteriorating rapidly. True, the journey to America would be perilous, but now it was even more dangerous to stay, so she and her teenaged daughters decided to make the voyage — one that was all the riskier for her since she was pregnant.
If things went as hoped, she would give birth perhaps a month after entering the U.S. She wondered how her husband would respond to the child, but her more immediate concern was how she and her daughters would be treated upon arrival. Would any or all of them be sent back? She had heard the rumors…
This scenario is all too familiar and variations of it apply to numerous immigrants attempting to cross America’s southern border in 2018. We hear the horror stories about the arduous trek from their hometowns and further sorrows awaiting them if they’re lucky enough to succeed. Those with even a basic awareness of what’s happening might wonder whether the woman profiled is from Guatemala, Honduras, or maybe El Salvador — but she was from Italy and arrived a century ago.
The story above is true, except that the immigrant’s name was Luigia, not Luisa. She and her daughters made the journey to Ellis Island in 1917 to try to reunite the family. Her husband had come initially in 1902 and again in 1904 leaving her at home with their adopted son and two daughters. Their son had good timing and left for America in 1913.
Perhaps Luigia had intended to follow soon after, but by 1915, her country was at war, and while her little town wasn’t in the crosshairs, all the usual side effects of war — scarcity of food, men, labor, and so forth — were in play. Women and children were left to fend for themselves as duty-bound men departed to serve their country. Some were coming home, but in caskets.
It was the worst possible time to cross the Atlantic. German U-boats and mines meant that any ship could be the next to sink just as the Lusitania had. As a result, immigration figures to the U.S. plummeted. Fewer than 18,000 Italians ventured to America in 1917, compared to more than 150,000 in 1914 and well over 200,000 in 1920. Even so, there were compelling reasons to go. Circumstances at home coupled with the fact that America was flirting with comprehensive immigration restrictions created a now-or-never situation.
Luigia’s gamble proved to be a smart one. Their ship, the Patria, made it to New York, landing on February 21st. On February 5th while they were at sea, the U.S. passed the Immigration Act of 1917 which was intended to limit undesirable southern and eastern European immigrants such as Luigia and her family. Fortunately, it wasn’t implemented until May 1st. Otherwise, she and her daughters could have been denied entry due to the freshly imposed literacy requirement. They had squeezed in with a margin of ten weeks.
Only about two percent of Ellis Island immigrants were deported — mostly for medical reasons — and since Luigia had managed to slip in just before the 1917 restrictions, this would have been her main concern. Being 8–9 months pregnant, she had reason to worry. While the main interest was keeping those with contagious diseases out, pregnancy could also cause officials to take a second look, and that’s what happened to Luigia. She and her daughters were detained for a week before being sent by railroad to her husband in Pennsylvania. 17 days later, she gave birth.
Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida is running for Governor to replace Rick Scott who is about to term out. A Trump devotee, he has staked out a position as an immigration hardliner. Anti-DACA and anti-sanctuary city, he described Paul Ryan’s efforts to find a position on immigration acceptable to most Republicans members of the House as “a really big amnesty.” Yes, Paul Ryan is too moderate for his tastes, and as this video attests, he thinks “build the wall” exhortations are cause for a good chuckle. And not surprisingly, he asserts that, “his family are Italian immigrants who waited to be accepted into this country….legally.”
Those who are less than welcoming of immigrants often proudly state that their ancestors came here legally, while failing to appreciate (or perhaps deliberately ignoring) how meaningless this claim is. Until a century ago, unless you were Chinese or Japanese (nationalities targeted by earlier legislation), this amounted to showing up at a U.S. port of entry. This is exactly what Luigia did, and what today’s asylum applicants are doing. The difference is that this process wasn’t criminalized until 2018.
Many fool themselves insisting that present-day immigrants are entirely different from those who came here in the past, but Luigia’s story is eerily similar to that of many coming now, and whether he knows it or not, Luigia was DeSantis’s great-great-grandmother.
When she escaped poverty and violence in 1917 and embarked on the hazardous voyage to America, she and her daughters were taken in together and reunited with family members who were already here. In 2018, her experience would play out very differently. To begin with, she would automatically be subject to criminal prosecution simply for presenting herself at the border, which is what those seeking asylum are supposed to do. One of her daughters was 18, so would probably receive the same treatment. Meanwhile, there’s a good chance her 16-year-old daughter would have been separated and sent elsewhere. And who knows what would happen when she gave birth to a child many would regard as an “anchor baby”? The 2018 version of the family that was reunified in 1917 would now be splintered and quite possibly deported, and Luigia might or might not know where all of her children were.
To DeSantis’s credit, he would prefer that families be kept together before being deported, but deportation would be his own family’s most likely outcome today, especially given the current administration’s efforts to exclude those escaping domestic and gang violence.
Luigia vs. Luisa
Luigia was a survivor who was welcomed rather than punished by America, and this tradition has long been a part of the bedrock of our exceptionalism. Has our great nation truly become so diminished in the last couple of years that we no longer have the guts to hold the door open for immigrants like Luisa?