Thematic Section



When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best... They're sending people that have lots of problems... They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They are rapists.” With these words, Donald J. Trump announced his bid for the U.S. presidency at Trump Tower in Manhattan on June 16, 2015. Since taking the oath of office in January 2017, the controversies surrounding President Trump’s stance on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border continue to make headlines and change lives. At stake in contemporary debates about Mexican immigration to the US are fundamental questions about American national identity and the United States’ role in the wider world: What is an American? Who can become one and how? To students of American history and culture, the resurgence of ethno-nationalism, and fear of/demonization of the foreign-born that has marked discourse about Mexican immigration in the Age of Trump strikes a familiar chord. As it turns out, xenophobia, hyper nationalism and charges of foreign criminality constitute a tradition in US politics that is as old as the republic- and as American as apple pie. Nowhere is this more evident than in the history of Southern Italian immigration to the United States prior to 1924. According to the most recognizable version of the story, the American connection with Southern Italy took shape between 1880 and 1920, when a series of chain migrations sent close to four million Italians (mostly Southern) to the United States in flight from the poverty and disorder plaguing the mezzogiorno in the first decades of Unification. During this transformative period, “patriotic” Nativists identified southern Italians as a critical threat to social order and the American way of life. Often depicted as backwards, superstitious aliens possessed by inborn traits of violence and criminality, Italians faced harassment, discrimination, prejudice and violence by American citizens and US-officials alike. From the lynching of eleven Sicilians in New Orleans on suspicion of criminal conspiracy in 1891, to the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti on murder charges in 1927, the history of anti-Italian sentiment in the US is well documented. What is less familiar is when and how the stereotype of Italian criminality took root in American culture. Equally opaque are the mechanisms through which these notions influenced immigration policy and foreign relations between Italy and the United States prior to the great waves of migration that began after Italian Unification in 1861.

Tracing Americans’ ideas about Italians’ “national character” from 1776- 1865, this paper examines the perceptions and debates that defined American encounters with the first immigrants identified as a “criminal group” inside the United States: Italians. Comparing the views of critics and defenders of Italian’s alleged criminality alike, including Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, as well as novelists Washington Irving, Henry T. Tuckerman and Theodore Dwight, my work shows that a spectrum of opinion about Italy and the “Italian character” existed in the United States before the Civil war and that these ideas left a lasting legacy with measurable effects on American culture, foreign policy and immigration law through 1924. The essay concludes by reflecting on contemporary debates about immigration policy, the US-Mexico border and Trump-era discourse on the “character” of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans against the backdrop of Italian immigration to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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