Another Time When USA Created Travel Bans Against Italians


There was a time in US history when the government thought that a country was “not sending its best.” A time when the government thought that immigrants’ home countries could do more to help them screen who gets to come to the US.

It was Italy in the 1920s.

The way the Sudanese and US governments negotiated to keep Sudan off of the Trump administration’s third travel ban is not a new diplomatic maneuver. A century ago, Italy too tried to negotiate its way out of restrictive immigration policies.

Like today, Americans at the end of the 19th century had fierce debates about which immigrants to admit to the US. In the midst of the largest global migration in history, many Americans remained divided over the need for immigrant labor to propel the country’s meteoric economic rise and the desire to protect the US from immigrants from “inferior” countries — at that time, China, Italy or Russia.

As one newspaper noted in the 1890s: “The floodgates are open. The bars are down. The sally-ports are unguarded. The dam is washed away. The sewer is unchoked. Europe is vomiting! In other words, the scum of immigration is viscerating [sic] upon our shores.”

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Under pressure from a small but very organized lobby, the US government responded by passing increasingly sweeping immigration laws that spelled out which immigrants were admissible and which were excluded. They created barriers for those considered to be a threat — physically, culturally or politically.

Despite the draconian legislation then, like now, the US could not hope to monitor who entered the country without the collaboration of other countries. It had influence but could not enforce its immigration laws by itself. So, the government established mechanisms of “remote control,” and demanded that other countries cooperate in a visa-vetting regime.

It’s not unlike what the Trump administration is demanding today.

In the early 1900s, Chinese immigrants were already severely restricted. Established political leaders of northern and western European descent turned their attention to immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Italians, often labeled “the Chinese of Europe,” were the largest immigrant group at the beginning of the 20th century so they became one of the primary targets for restrictive immigration laws. (The other targeted group was Eastern European Jews.)

By 1914, many Americans agreed with Bishop Charles Henry Brent of the Protestant Episcopal Church that “the United States is in far greater danger from the quality of immigration that comes from Southern Europe than from any peril that could come by Japanese ownership of lands in California, or from Asiatic immigration.”

By 1917, US immigration laws categorized potential immigrants by socioeconomic status, literacy, criminality, political beliefs, diplomatic standing, physical and mental health and sexuality. And increasingly, the burden of selecting the “right” immigrants to come to the US rested with the governments of the immigrants’ countries of origin.

Italy, as well as Poland and the former Yugoslavia, had little choice but to comply with US requests to change how they treated their own citizens. The US demanded a uniform passport system, that Italy allow American doctors on Italian soil for medical inspections, and that Italian officials collaborate with US embassies and consulates to issue new types of documents to Italians who wanted US visas.

With remote control in place, many aspiring Italian immigrants never left for the US in the first place.

The Italian government saw these demands as an infringement on its sovereignty, but it collaborated anyway because it hoped that the US would not pass more stringent immigration laws. They had a stagnant economy, while work was plentiful in the Americas, and the remittances Italians sent home were significant. Ironically, the more Italy tried to make sure that only “desirable” immigrants went to the US and the more they tried to protect Italians already in the US, the more American legislators called for restriction.

Many Americans and restrictionist legislators believed that the Italian government could do more to weed out “undesirable Italians” but didn’t because it wanted to get rid of them. At one point in the early 1920s, the Italian government was prepared to put a temporary moratorium on Italian emigration to the US while they established stricter immigration controls, if Congress agreed not to pass legislation that would further limit how many Italians the US would admit. The Italian government’s efforts were to no avail, however.

The result was the 1924 Immigration Act, one of the most restrictive immigration laws in US history. The act created a national origins quota system that allowed only a small number of people to immigrate from eastern and southern Europe, banned most immigration from Asia, and created new restrictions for immigrants from the Americas, particularly Mexicans. The majority of the quota slots went to immigrants from northern and western Europe, people with white Anglo-Saxon heritage.

By the 1920s, however, very few immigrants from Britain, Germany or Ireland came to the US even though they had more opportunity to do so.

The 1924 Immigration Act did lead to a reduction of immigration from southern and eastern Europe, but, historically speaking, these arbitrary and discriminatory laws set in motion a series of unintended consequences. It forced the US to create a bigger and more expensive immigration infrastructure at home and abroad to enforce the new rules. The buildup of this system in Italy created a new and more insidious problem to solve: many aspiring Italian immigrants lacking the money to apply for a visa or a passport snuck out of the country, often through France, and then tried to reach the US from there. These migrants then became “illegal” both in the US and Italy.

The strict immigration system set up in the 1920s alienated many Allied countries in Asia during World War II and undermined US aspirations of global leadership during the Cold War. It also led to one of the US’s worst moral failures of the 20th century: It turned away Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe because they came from countries with small allotted quotas. Quotas for countries with many Jewish refugees went unfilled through the 1930s and 1940s, including a very generous quota for Germany, because State Department officials systematically denied visas or rejected refugees.

Fast forward to today, and the lesson might be one of caution. Countries that collaborate with the Trump administration to control migration cannot guarantee that their citizens will not later become a target of its restrictive policies.

Maddalena Marinari is assistant professor of history at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. She teaches a broad range of courses on 20th century US history and writes about immigration, immigration restriction and policy history. She was among a group of historians who helped Global Nation annotate the first version of Trump’s travel ban.

More: The US has come a long way since its first, highly restrictive naturalization law

From PRI’s The World ©2017 PRI

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Italy’s grinding economic crisis has created a boom time for the country’s soothsayers

Italy’s grinding economic crisis has created a boom time for the country’s soothsayers, tarot card readers and fortune-tellers, a report has revealed.

With high unemployment and a largely moribund economy, more and more people are seeking solace from the esoteric and the occult.

The number of faith healers and fortune-tellers has risen five times since the global economic crisis began a decade ago, according to Codacons, Italy’s national consumer organisation.

The sector is now worth an estimated eight billion euros a year, with the vast majority of the country’s 155,000 practitioners demanding cash in hand and not declaring their earnings to the tax authorities.

While most practitioners ask for money for their services, others are demanding sexual favours from their most vulnerable clients.

Around 13 million Italians – about a quarter of the adult population – regularly visit astrologers, fortune-tellers and tarot card readers, three million more than in 2001, an investigation by Codacons found.

“The main factor driving the increase in the number of Italians going to fortune-tellers, card readers and gurus is, without doubt, the economic crisis,” Codacons said in a report.

The Italian economy remains stubbornly in the doldrums, with an overall unemployment rate of 11 per cent.

The jobless rate for young people is much worse, at around 35 per cent.

The Catholic Church has warned that an interest in tarot cards, Ouija boards and similar practices can lead in some cases to people exploring the darkest side of the occult and requiring exorcisms
The Catholic Church has warned that an interest in tarot cards, Ouija boards and similar practices can lead in some cases to people exploring the darkest side of the occult and requiring exorcismsCREDIT: REX

“Deep uncertainty about the future, the difficult in finding work, economic problems and the hope of resolving personal situations has driven a growing number of Italians to look for answers in tarot card reading, paid-for horoscopes and magic,” the report said.

“They end up in the hands of unscrupulous people who profit from their fragility and their difficulties.”

The Catholic Church has warned that the growing interest in tarot cards and fortune-telling can lead some people to dabble in the dark side of the occult, with some needing exorcisms to rid them of evil.

A decline in faith has led to people resorting to “pagan activities”, such as using Ouija boards to summon the dead.

The Vatican said last year that a rise in the number of people dabbling in Satanism and the occult is fueling a demand for more exorcists on both sides of the Atlantic.

“The number of people who take part in occult and satanic practices, which lead to serious physical, psychological and spiritual damages, is constantly rising,” said Valter Cascioli, a psychologist and scientific consultant to the International Association of Exorcists, which is endorsed by the Vatican.

“The lack of exorcists is a real emergency. There is a pastoral emergency as a result of a significant increase in the number of diabolical possessions that exorcist priests are confronting,” he told La Stampa newspaper.

There has been a boom in the number of Italians asking for advice and predictions from tarot card readers. CREDIT: SOLENT NEWS

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Verdi’s battle over censorship of his revolutionary opera

Verdi’s Rigoletto Premiere, Venice, March 11, 1851

Since its opening at the Teatro La Fenice, Rigoletto has re­mained one of Verdi’s most cele­brated works, a favorite with audiences and critics alike. Even the aged Rossini, who until Rigoletto had withheld his praise, finally acknowledged Verdi’s musical genius. And when the opera opened in Paris, it ran for over 100 performances to packed houses, causing Victor Hugo (au­thor of the opera’s source) no little resentment. But the highest praise came from George Bernard Shaw, a famous music reviewer as well as playwright, who described Rigoletto as “a treasure of art and genius burnt into music.”

But Verdi’s success with Rigoletto did not come without difficulties with government censors, who almost sunk the project. Adapted from Hugo’s play, Le Roi s’amuse, the Aus­trian military censors found the libretto too controversial. [Readers will remember prior to the Italian Risorgimento; northern Italy was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.] Indeed, Hugo’s play had been too strong even for Parisian audiences, who drove it from the stage after only one performance. They considered it licentious and anti-royalist.

Giuseppe Verdi

Verdi was determined to adapt the play to opera. He thought Le Roi s’amuse “a creation worthy of Shakespeare.” So, to comply with the censor’s demands, Verdi agreed to demote King François I to a duke, change the setting from France to Mantua, and delete a bedroom scene he never in­tended to stage. He would not, however, eliminate the sack used for Gilda’s death, an objection the military censor made on purely aesthetic grounds. [Alas, how far we have come from those days of the soldier-scholar-­aesthete.]

“The Censorship”—as Verdi con­temptuously called it—dogged him throughout his career, and for Rigoletto the battle was won only in Austrian-controlled Italy. No sooner was the opera transferred to Rome, Naples, or Palermo than it underwent new censorship tinkering, ludicrously reflected in its many name changes: Viscardello, Lionello, and Clara di Perth, the latter nicely displaying the Italian censors’ penchant for setting all disagreeable stories in Scotland, where anything could happen!

For Verdi, Rigoletto closed his “galley years,” the early chapter of his career when he wrote fif­teen operas in twelve years; more importantly, Rigoletto caused dra­matic changes in Italian opera. To audiences brought up on Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, Rigoletto was uncon­ventional and full of surprises. For example, from the opening curtain, the Duke’s banter about his amorous affairs seems to prepare us for a light, comic opera; not until Count Monterone enters is there any hint of the opera’s dark side. But once in place, the tragic com­plication is immediately taken up in the music, shunting aside its opening gaiety.

Moreover, Verdi’s revolution­ary changes can be seen in every part of the opera’s musical struc­ture. Reducing show-stopping arias to a minimum, the music is inextricably bound to the drama, everywhere supporting the action and delin­eating character. Gone are the conventional arias that so often exist solely to call attention to themselves and show off the illustrious singers who demanded them, no matter what the dramatic situation required.

By contrast, the Duke and Gilda’s famous arias—”Questa o quella” [This one or that, they’re all the same] and “Caro nome” [Sweet name of my beloved]—are essential to their respective char­acterizations. And the Duke’s “La donna ê mobile” [Women are fickle] adds a bitter touch to the dramatic irony of the last scene. The final strains of this throw-away aria, sung offstage by the careless Duke, provide the chilling backdrop for Rigoletto’s tragic discovery.

Apart from these arias, Rigoletto unfolds musically in a se­ries of duets and dramatic exchanges. Gone are the big en­semble numbers, where princi­pals and chorus plant themselves in static poses, to “tell” us of the drama unfolding; in their place are scenes “enacting” the drama. This is beautifully illustrated in the exchange between Rigoletto and the assassin Sparafucile, as well as in Rigoletto’s concluding “Parisiamo” [How alike we are]. Their encounter employs recitative, duet, and monologue, but no conventional arias to detract from the drama and characteriza­tion Verdi sought.

This extraordinary dramatic technique can be seen everywhere in Rigoletto, but its most pow­erful illustration is in the opening scene of Act II, where Rigoletto searches for evidence of Gilda at Court. At first brusque with the courtiers, he is soon reduced to pleading, then finally condemns them—”Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” [Vile, damned courtiers]. In this moving exchange, the music for Rigoletto and chorus departs completely from anything Italian opera had seen before, fluctuating between recitative and arioso to create this powerful scene.

By thrusting drama into the forefront, Rigoletto became the central piece in Verdi’s opera revolution. With it he changed opera from a singer’s showpiece to an integrated drama, one that demands all elements work together. And, as if such radical changes were not enough, never before had such a subject ap­peared in opera. Only Verdi would consider using a deformed—both physically and morally—jester as his central character; but for Verdi, Rigoletto was a new kind of tragic figure, “outwardly ridiculous and de­formed, yet inwardly filled with passion and love.”

The story of this pitiful jester, condemned to his hateful role (played, alas, all too skillfully) represents a new direction in opera. And after Rigoletto, the place of music in opera was so altered, the Italian musical stage would never be the same. And in his own operas from 1851 on—La TraviataSimon Boccanegra, Un Ballo in Maschera, Otello and Falstaff—Verdi continued to build on the revolutionary changes Rigoletto intro­duced, and the composers who followed have been forever in his debt.


by Gilbert R. Davis

Dr. Davis has contributed notes for Opera Grand Rapids’ productions for over 35 years.

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