Mario Mignone came to America from Italy at age 20 with his family, looking for a better life.
It was 1960 and Mignone, director of the Center for Italian Studies at Stonybrook University and author of The Story of My People, says it wasn’t easy to get in — they were delayed six years due to his father’s perceived leftist political associations. But eventually (and legally), they made it.
In America, he had to learn English. He had no money and went to work in a factory, going to school at night. Thanks to free public education, he got a college degree, as did his seven other siblings. They became doctors and dentists and professors — living the American dream.
“I don’t have any grudge for us having been delayed,” he says. “I feel that our nation and any nation should have the right to decide who is allowed in and who not.” He says he is pro-immigration, but thinks it should be regulated.
Otherwise, we become a “borderless nation.”
In his speech on immigration Wednesday night, Donald Trump doubled down on this argument, a core concept for his campaign.
Give us your tired, your poor, your skilled high-tech workers
The speech was studded with dark and apocalyptic imagery of a nation being drastically changed by immigration. Implicitly, Trump is suggesting today’s largely-Hispanic immigrants are different from the immigrants of yore — those who came through Ellis Island and “waited in line.”
Though Trump’s more zenophobic language has enraged many, the up-from-your-bootstraps argument is directly aimed at a core constituency of second- and third-generation Americans a few generations removed from the immigrant experience, but close enough to it that it remains important to their identity — such as for many Italian-Americans.
Some, like Trump supporter Kenny Martone, a Nassau County resident, see their ancestors as having come here in search of different things than current immigrants. “They did not ask for handouts. They did not want welfare.” They had low wage jobs, couldn’t drive and had to learn English, but “they made ends meet.”
But for others, it’s hard not to see parallels between immigrants past and present. “Probably my family wouldn’t have gotten here if there was a Trump,” says Maria Lisella, curator of the Italian American Writers Association reading series and poet laureate of Queens.
Lisella says her family members were poor farmworkers, semi-literate and starving when they emigrated from Calabria. Her grandmother had been married in Italy and married again in America — not exactly the ideals of “merit, skill and proficiency” that Trump said we should screen for.
Her mother’s parents had “no skills,” Lisella says, scraping together a living by selling fruits and vegetables in a small store. They lived among those with gang connections: they had to deal with their less savory fellow immigrants who were part of the Black Hand.
Was that different, Lisella asked, than the landscape workers, home health aides and taxi drivers that Trump said were stealing American livelihood and prosperity? Those are the “entry level jobs into America,” Lisella says.
Same destination, same journey
“It’s a huge ordeal to get to this country,” says Maryanne Yenoli, treasurer at the Italian Genealogical Group in Bethpage, which helps people get in touch with their ancestral roots. It was like that for her relatives — the twenty or thirty-mile wagon-ride or journey from farming villages to Naples to catch a transatlantic ship.
But it is like that now too, for Central Americans who walk “for days and days on end,” Yenoli says, to escape horrible conditions. Our borders have always been a destination, and often a loose barrier, for people making such journeys.
She said many of the members of the genealogical group, who were so interested in the sufferings and activities of previous generations, tended to be conservative. She wondered if it was the fact that they tended to have made it further than their forbears had.
She wondered if the animosity towards contemporary immigrants came from the possibility of “gaming the system” now — ”there weren’t as many social systems then.”
Trump, she said, seemed to be “demonizing an entire group to make his base happy.”
But she was puzzled by the allegations he often uses. Like her grandparents — laborers who struggled against adversity, took in boarders when they needed to, did what they could — current immigrants seemed to work hard as a rule. Most people seem to be working hard, in a difficult economy.
He’s not blaming “the business owners such as Trump who are doing the outsourcing,” Yenoli says. Instead, “the guy who washes dishes in the restaurant is somehow the problem.”