S.1 E.10 “Unwanted”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews immigration historian and author Maddalena Marinari.
Posted on June 25th, 2020 by

Gustavus immigration historian Maddalena Marinari, author of the important and timely new book, Unwanted: Italian and Jewish Mobilization against Restrictive Immigration Law, 1882-1965 (2020), on the history of “Italian and Jewish reformers” combating restriction, and her own transatlantic story.

Season 1, Episode 10: “Unwanted”


Greg Kaster:
Learning for Life at Gustavus has produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

Professor Maddalena Marinari is a leading young immigration historian and, I am proud to say, my colleague in the Gustavus department of history, where she has taught since 2015. An innovative teacher and active scholar, Maddalena teaches a range of courses in 20th century US history and has published two important books on immigration history; “A Nation of Immigrants Reconsidered: US society in an age of restriction, 1924 to 1965.” A co-edited volume. And her new work hot off the presses; “Unwanted: Italian and Jewish mobilization against restrictive immigration laws. 1892 to 1965.” She recently returned from a fellowship in Kassel, Germany, where she taught immigration history.

Maddalena, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to the podcast.

Maddalena Marinari:
Thank you for having me.

Greg Kaster:
Oh, it’s great to talk. My first question is almost always the case, and you can appreciate this since you’re a fellow historian, is to ask you to talk a little bit about how you came to be what you are. That is, how you came to be an immigration historian. And your story is, I think, of particular interest, given that you’re from Italy originally and found your way to the United States, the university of Kansas.

Professor Maddalena Marinari

Professor Maddalena Marinari

Maddalena Marinari:
I often joke that I am what I study, but the short answer is that I grew up in a town that has a lot of people living abroad. And every summer our population would balloon. And most of the people who would come were either from Switzerland or the United States. I was actually one of the few people in my home town who didn’t have anyone in the United States.

And when I was in high school, I was part of an exchange study program and I came to the United States for three weeks. I went to school and that’s when I decided I would try to understand US immigration history. And it was in particular because I could sense at the time that Italy was becoming a receiving country. And so I was particularly interested in understanding, how did the US do it?

Of course, I learned later that the nation of immigrants, it’s kind of a mess. It’s one thing that Americans say and believe about themselves, but the practice is very different. But that experience in high school really stayed with me. And so when I was in college in Italy, I majored in English and French, but I also took a lot of history classes. And one of them was with a famous immigration historian in Italy. And so she’s the one that really got me hooked.

So, on one hand it’s very personal. I come from a town where pretty much everyone knows someone who left, including my parents were migrants themselves. But also I became intellectually interested in it once I got to college. And so when I was deciding at the end of my college career, what to do, I decided to pursue this passion and come to the United States.

But I was still fairly undecided about where to take this project. So I actually, I’m one of those crazy people who majored in both European and US history. And it’s not until I started working on my dissertation that I decided I was truly a US historian who was interested in immigration policy.

Greg Kaster:
And you grew up, I’m not sure we said, but you grew up in Naples. Is that right?

Maddalena Marinari:
Yes. Near Naples. So actually this is my dark secret. I was born in Switzerland because my parents were living there at the time, but my parents had a very different experience and reaction to their immigrant lives. My dad really liked it. My mom did not.

So by the time I was three, we were back in Italy. So from a very young age, I was caught between two worlds, where my mom had a very different experience than what my dad had. So I was left with a lot of questions, a lot of questions about, so what do we do with immigrants in our country? What do we do with immigrants in our families? And what do we do with these radically different experiences that immigrants have?

And these are kind of the ideas that have guided me as a student first, as a researcher and a professor later. I think it’s important whenever you study, whatever you study, that you have questions that for you are so important to answer that kind of function as your drive while you do your work.

Greg Kaster:
That is so true. And it’s of course a cliche, at least among professors, that the questions matter more than the answers. And that’s a way to transition, I think, to your teaching.

Could you say a little bit about both the kinds of courses you teach, but also especially the ways in which you’ve involved students in primary research related to immigration? I think you did so with the Holocaust as well.

Maddalena Marinari:
Yes. Thank you for asking that question. Because I’m this passionate about my own research I try to bring that kind of passion in the classroom as well. One of the things that, for me has always been important, is to use the past to help us understand the present. I always tell my students that history doesn’t repeat itself. It builds on itself. We’re here because of other things that happened before.

So these connections between the past and the present is always critical for me. And this is one of the guiding principles that I use in building my courses, but also in creating assignments that are meaningful and relevant to students lives. And so repeatedly, I’ve created assignments that, in collaboration with other institutions, one with the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC, where students actually researched newspapers here in Minnesota to see what Americans knew about the Holocaust as it was unfolding.

And the idea behind the project is actually to challenge the existing historiography that says “No Americans knew very little.” And I’m proud to say that, I think to this day, that class contributed the largest number of newspaper articles of any other institution. The students really embraced it and did such a phenomenal job.

And then another class I had the opportunity to teach was in collaboration with the immigration history research center, where they encourage people to record their own immigrant stories. And the parameters are fairly open, which I really liked. So students could choose to record their own story. The story of an immigrant in their lives, of a friend. And so students really took it in different directions. But what was useful about that exercise is that yes, they learned to create a short video, but most of the work was on gathering information, gathering evidence.

Two students actually surprised me one day and said, on their own they had spontaneously decided to go to the local archive of the Historical Society to look for photos of St. Peter from earlier in the 20th century. And I think that’s the kind of passion that you want to create in students when you create these assignments. And another student wrote his own music to the video. He also, in the middle of recording the video, decided that most of the script idea he had worked on, for some reason centered too much around his father and was like, “my mom was just as important.”

And so we had talked about the intersection of race, gender, class. And so I’m glad that by the end, by the time that the course was over, they had realized that we actually do need to pay attention to different voices and need to continuously ask, “whose voice is missing?”

So these are some of my more ambitious projects. Even at a perhaps less ambitious level, my students in the World War Two class have been working in the archives with this collection of former Japanese and Japanese American internees, who went through Minneapolis while they relocated after World War Two. And even just seeing the excitement of students having a card that encapsulated someone’s life was just eye opening for them, but also exciting for me to see. Because really, history came to life. And doing that allowed them to make connections to some of the tragic, unfortunate experiences we’re seeing that immigrants are having today.

Podcast host and historian Greg Kaster

Greg Kaster:
Those just sound like such phenomenally rich educational experiences for the students, and they’re really behaving working as historians in the archives. I assume the Japanese, did you say internees, their records are in the Minnesota historical society online, is that how it worked?

Maddalena Marinari:
No, they’re actually on our campus.

Greg Kaster:
Oh, right, wow.

Maddalena Marinari:
So, the students every week, once a week, our students met in the archives. So when we kind of used that opportunity also to demystify archives, which seems always daunting and intimidating. I think we also have the good luck of working with a very flexible and generous archivist, Jeff Johnson, but he set the materials for them and essentially we typed up a lot of the information on these cards and created a database that is now searchable online.

We were not able to type all of it, so we’ll probably do the same exercise again next time I teach the class. But even with the amount of information that they were able to do, they were able to both extract qualitative and quantitative data that I don’t think they expected they would be able to at the beginning of the class. And so they looked at age, religion, marriage, status, occupations, hobbies.

Some of the cards were more detailed than other, but I think it was important for them to work on these cards because it made these people real and not abstracts. And given the kind of rhetoric that Americans absorbed at the time and that we hear today, I think the most important thing we can do is to remind people that these are human beings and there is no other way, no better way for me to say they have names. They had children. They had hobbies. They moved several times because of this terrible experience. And I think that was a particularly successful aspect of that exercise in that class.

Greg Kaster:
That’s just terrific. And it’s another nice transition, this time to your work. The two books seem rather different, at least in focus. So one is about efforts to restrict immigration. That’s the co-edited volume. And the recent one that you authored is about gathered immigrants mobilizing, or immigrants and their supporters mobilizing against restriction. Do you see these as sort of bookends to the topic of immigration?

Maddalena Marinari:
So, in a way they’re related. So both of them cover a period that is largely unexplored in US immigration history. So the [anthology 00:12:26] was trying to say, this is a highly restrictive period that can answer a couple of questions. So, does immigration restriction work and was there ever such a period in US history where the country really did fully restrict immigration, not allowing anyone in?

And so if you read the essays, the answer to that is no. So the United States has never been fully restrictive. And in fact, restriction and inclusion have kind of been two processes that have happened always at the same time. And sometimes even though the law might appear excessively restrictive, there are always loopholes. And then in the book, I try to explore, okay so what word is loopholes? How did they come about?

And if we all know that these restrictive measures don’t work, why do we keep passing them? And so, one of the things that, for example, the activist I look at, the [inaudible 00:13:34] Jewish activist realizes soon enough, is that the only issue that restrictioners were willing to negotiate on was family reunion. And so for them, that becomes the driver of their agenda.

Even at the height of restriction, xenophobia and nativism, they say, “But let’s not forget that we’re separating families.” And that seemed to work. I think today’s the first time when we’re seeing that principle no longer applies. But the reason why family unit was so important in immigration law for the longest time was because some of these people fought for it.

And also, the other piece that I was interested in is like, so why were these politicians pushing for these restrictive measures, even though they also made sure that there were some exceptions for families or for certain economic categories, for immigrants with skills.

And it turns out, because one of the things that stood out to me as I was writing and researching his book was, a lot of these politicians come from areas that don’t have a lot of immigrants. At the very beginning of the story a lot of these politicians come from the South. And it turns out that these politicians realize that they can use immigration to retain power and political influence essentially.

And immigration emerges at a time where the American electorate, especially in the South is growing, with African Americans who can vote. And so it turns out that immigration is used on one hand, as a tool to shape US society. But on the other hand, there is a much more cynical reason for it. It’s like they ferment this anti-immigrant hysteria, but it’s really because they want to be reelected. They want to be the senior members of this new economic congressional committees and retain power, ultimately.

Greg Kaster:
That is extremely interesting. And then the most recent book is about efforts to combat restriction. Could you say a little bit about your argument there?

Maddalena Marinari:
Right. So these groups essentially realize pretty soon that there’s no way to completely return to a time where there are no restrictions. So they try to find ways to challenge restriction, piecemeal. Which on one hand allowed them to be extremely successful, especially considering how few they were.

So they get exemptions for family members. They get exemptions eventually for displaced persons, refugees. But because it’s piecemeal… So on one end my story says, if activists keep at it and work with politicians even when it’s hard, results will follow. However, because they don’t have that much leverage they are often confronted with a series of hundreds of bills, just like exactly a century ago. Sometimes they actually have to compromise and those compromises end up having negative consequences, not just on the immigrants they are directly trying to help, but also longterm.

So I’ll just give one example. A century ago, both Italian and Jewish American activists realized that the quota system would be inevitable. So they fought really hard to make sure that families would be exempted, that certain immigrants with certain skills would be exempted. But the longterm of passing that quota system them meant that for example, in the 1930s, those quotas were never filled. And of course in the 1930s, there are a lot of European Jews who were trying to flee.

So immigration laws that are passed in specific historical moments end up having larger unintended consequences. Even when the compromises come out of an effort to pass a somewhat better law, we are not very good at anticipating the negative consequences or repercussions down the line. And I think that’s what’s happening with some of the immigration executive orders that we’re seeing right now. They’re the product of specific historical moments, but we’re actually not anticipating, or unable to anticipate the kind of damage that they can do down the road.

Greg Kaster:
That’s also interesting to me because one of my areas of interest is radical and reform social movements. And that’s always an issue. Do we go piecemeal? Do we go all out? What’s your sense of that? Were the opponents of restriction mistaken to do the piecemeal approach or was that really all that was available to them? Would they have done better had they gone all in, so to speak?

Maddalena Marinari:
Oh my goodness, you asked the question that has dawned in me from day one. I think it’s hard. So, I think instinctively we all want to say they should have gone all in, but we need to remember the kind of the environment that they were fighting in.

So in the 1910s and 1920s is probably when they tried to say what we have on the books is enough. Let’s make sure that the laws that we have are better implemented, and we make sure that we’ll help the new immigrants integrate and Americanize. And that didn’t work. And so they then had to deal with this marker of undesirability and that lesson stayed with them for a really long time.

And so, when World War Two happens they see another opening, but the lesson from World War One hasn’t really gone away. And so they decided the piecemeal approach is more effective. However, they really could not agree. Younger activists said that we shouldn’t compromise that we should go all in. But when they tried, they tried twice in the 1950s, they lost terribly and they were isolated and marginalized because it’s also the height of the cold war hysteria. And so they were called communists. They lost their jobs. And so I think the stakes, they have a few bargaining ships, but the stakes are also really high if you decide to go all in. I think it’s really a tough call to make.

Greg Kaster:
It is, I think for every movement. You touched on this just maybe a minute ago or so, but the present. Immigration debates currently, immigration policies, does this all cause you a massive sense of déjà vu?

I mean, history doesn’t repeat itself, I agree with you. And yet it seems that so much of what is discussed and implemented right now echoes the past. How are present debates and immigration policies similar to, different from? And I realize that’s a huge question, but if you give us the answer in a nutshell.

Maddalena Marinari:
I think I’ve been telling my fellow immigration stories, I really wish what I’m studying wouldn’t be as relevant as it is right now. Because I have nightmares about some of the rhetoric that I’m hearing is actually remarkably similar to what I’m writing about in my book or reading for my next book.

So I know that probably your listeners have had a lot of analysis when it comes to this, but one of the things that I am struck by. So, the rhetoric is very similar. Immigrants are scapegoated, and they’re convenient scapegoats because they’re so vulnerable and they have very limited ways to defend themselves. But one of the things that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit is, I go back to that question, so why are politicians pushing for these immigration restrictions? Some of them have no base. Like they’re not going to improve our economy.

So, like 100 years ago, immigration restriction also became an opportunity to talk about, who do we want to become American citizens? And so it’s also a matter of citizenship and it goes back to the question about activism. So perhaps if our politicians, our Congress looked more diverse or reflected the United States more, we would have different laws. And if these immigrants become citizens and vote, that might actually become a reality.

And so I think this is what may seem uncomfortable to most in terms of similarities. That it is not just about keeping people out, but it’s also making sure that certain people have a particularly difficult time becoming citizens and making their voices heard and really making a contribution to US society that is not just in economic terms, but also in social and political terms.

Greg Kaster:
That’s very true. Even I hadn’t really thought that until you just said it, how important that issue is of who gets to become a citizen. Which of course relates to notions of national identity. What does it mean to be an American?

Extremely interesting work and I highly recommend both books to our listeners. To conclude, could you say a little bit about what has been most rewarding to you as a teacher at Gustavus? I know that before Gustavus you taught at another small liberal arts college in upstate New York. What is it about teaching history and immigration history, if you like, at Gustavus that you find most rewarding?

Maddalena Marinari:
I love our students. I love how open they are to let me try new assignments. To letting me try new readings, new formats. I love the way they engage with the questions that we’re trying to answer in my classes. I’ve never been at another institution where I get emails well past the semester is over, or I get emails in the middle of the night from a student saying, “I just couldn’t fall asleep thinking about our assignment for working with refugee files. I cannot piece this story together, but here are my hypothesis. What should I look at?” I mean, this was an email at three in the morning.

I also liked that here, students really try to go beyond, “okay, what’s on the test?” And see, “how is this knowledge going to be helpful, useful to me? Not just tomorrow, but a year from now, five years from now?” I mean, we all have work to do, but I think it’s the aspiration to really be a humanist, where yes, you might be an econ major. Yes, you might be a bio major. But you really understand and appreciate that Gustavus gives you an education that’s beyond just your major.

We are trying to educate citizens, human beings that live in a rapidly changing world. And I think their openness and flexibility is something that has stood out to me even from my campus visit. And then when I came here and I saw that it was real, it was just exciting. And it’s what motivates me when I’m in the classroom.

Greg Kaster:
Well, thank you so much. All I can say is I wish I could actually be one of your students. It’s always a pleasure to speak with you. And again, I highly recommend your books. Congratulations on both and I will see you back in the department. Take good care. Thank you.

Maddalena Marinari:
Thank you.



Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication Luc Hatlestad


Comments are closed.