Because of the continual violence waged by the Trump Administration on immigrants, migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers – the most recent being the denial of flu shots to migrants in detention – an assault from a week or ten days ago is already old news, fading into memory. Excuse me, then, for going back into the archives to August 13, 2019 to reflect on a news event that even by the grotesque standards of Trump and Company’s approach to immigration stood out in its mix of the cruel and the absurd.
Ken Cuccinelli, the Acting Director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, was explaining to NPR reporter Rachel Martin the Administration’s plan to reduce legal immigration by placing a broadly expanded “public charge” test to applicants for citizenship. Essentially immigration officials will estimate the likelihood that applicants would be unable to support themselves because at some point they drew on social safety net benefits such as food stamps or Medicaid.
Given this proposed penalty that the government would place on people for legally utilizing public services when they are in need, Ms. Martin asked Mr. Cuccinelli what we are to make of the most quoted lines from the Emma Lazarus poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “…Give me your tired, your poor, / your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Without missing a beat, Mr. Cuccinelli repeated the couplet and added an administrative proviso that had me – and I’m sure had tens of thousands of other listeners – tapping our radios in disbelief. “Give me your tired and your poor,” the Acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services extemporized “who can stand on their own two feet and not become a public charge.”
My grandfather, Anthony Meraglio, was among the four million immigrants from Southern Italy – most were poor and minimally educated – who flowed into the United States between 1880 and 1920. Many of the men entered the basic labor force of the heavy industries that would contribute to American economic preeminence by mid-Twentieth Century. Tony found work in the expansive yards of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Altoona, Pennsylvania, clearing waste and debris, hauling materials, coupling and uncoupling freight cars. As was the case with other ethnic groups, Tony lived in an enclave of countrymen, spoke little English, fathered some of his children overseas (my mother among them) and some in the U.S., traveling back and forth to Italy until he could afford to bring my grandmother and his family to the United States. Contemporary politically conservative Italian-Americans like Mr. Cuccinelli like to look back on this period of immigration and depict people of Tony’s generation as model assimilationists who “lived by the rules,” “waited their turn” to become citizens, and so on. The truth of their daily lives was far from this mythology. And the kind of ugly bigotry currently directed toward people seeking entrance to the United States was directed toward Italians, who were both feared and despised, seen as being among the “lesser breeds.” “There should be a law,” says a woman quoted in Waiter Wyckoff’s 1898 book The Workers “to give a job to every decent man that’s out of work…And another law to keep all them I-talians from comin’ in and takin’ the bread out of the mouths of honest people.”
One day in 1921 in the main yard of the railroad, Tony was standing under a locomotive’s ash pan that had been secured to a crane. As the pan was being lifted, it slipped loose and caught Tony across his leg, resulting in an injury so severe that his leg was amputated. This was before the protections of our country’s social safety net existed – the kinds of protections Mr. Cuccinelli wants to restrict, or penalize people for using. My grandmother, Frances, went into crisis mode: taking in boarders, pulling my mother out of school in the 7thgrade to tend to the house, getting the other kids, some still in the primary grades, into the work force. Theirs was a hard, grinding life.
Public assistance as we know it wasn’t available in 1921, and I can’t say if my grandmother would have used it if it were – though given her wily resourcefulness, I suspect she would have. The Meraglio children might have had a different life. Would my mother have been able to stay in school? Go to high school? Those who advocate for significant restrictions on immigration, targeting especially poor people with limited formal education, voice Mr. Cuccinelli’s worry that such immigration will create a burden on society. Even with their minimal opportunities, the children of Tony and Frances would grow up to become a machinist in the Pennsylvania Railroad, a supervisor at General Motors, a small business owner, a suburban councilman, and a waitress – the work my mother did that made my life possible. And their children would become a research scientist at Bell Labs, a recipient of the Purple Heart, a high school principal, a lawyer, a graphic artist, two executives in baking and financial services, a college professor, and several small business owners. These are the progeny of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.