As a child, I often heard that my maternal grandfather, Saverio La Forgia, had been in the US for several years in the mid-to-late 1920s. When my mother would talk about it, she would covertly whisper the word clandestino, clearly insinuating that there was something illicit about this information. Even the ears of a child could comprehend the hint at unauthorized activity. However, as I look back, what I recall most vividly is that I thought she was saying "grande stile", sarcastically implying that Saverio had arrived in "great style". Yet, this was one instance where my mom wasn't expressing the famed Italian love for hyperbole. She was simply stating that he was in the US clandestinely. In other words, he was an illegal immigrant.
Saverio La Forgia (circa 1925)
Whenever I see, hear, or read a news item on illegal immigration, I can't help but think about my Nonno Saverio, but he was not atypical for the time period. Several laws were enacted by the US government in the early 1920s to significantly restrict immigration. These laws set immigration quotas on Southern and Eastern Europeans while explicitly prohibiting immigration from parts of Asia and the Middle East. Regardless, the appeal of jobs as the US economy boomed in the Roaring Twenties was strong enough to entice many into drastic measures. According to family lore, Saverio "jumped ship". In essence, he arrived in the US under the guise of working on a cargo shipping vessel and somehow sneaked into the country.
For reasons lost with Saverio's passing in 1987, he decided to go back to Molfetta in early 1929, not long before the infamous stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression. However, his future brother-in-law, my granduncle, Leonardo De Gennaro, had quite a different experience. Fortunately for me, he also left a paper trail.
Leonardo De Gennaro - Border Crossing Record
The document above is a portion of a record of Leonardo's reentry into the United States from a visit to Canada on October 27, 1938. It notes that he had already been residing in the United States from March 19, 1926 through two days prior to his return from Toronto. In addition, it acknowledges his initial entry into the US in 1926 via Tampa, FL, on a vessel named Clara Camus.
Besides family oral tradition, there is significant factual and circumstantial evidence indicated that Leonardo's initial entry into the US was illicit . Firstly, there is no evidence of a legitimate reason why he came to the US through Tampa, FL. Upon arriving in the US he made his way north to Hoboken, NJ, to stay with his aunt's family. Why didn't he arrive through Ellis Island as was most common for other immigrants from Molfetta during this time period? After marrying Angela Maria Manente, he and his young family moved to Brooklyn, NY, as reflected above. Furthermore, all indications are that the Clara Camus was purely a merchant cargo ship.
Unlike Saverio, Leonardo stayed permanently in the US, eventually settling his family in Southern California. Though he died in 1990, he is still lovingly referred to as "Zio Della California" by family in the US and back in Molfetta.
Several years ago while attending a seminar, I posed a question about Italian illegal immigration during the 1920s to a respected Italian-American genealogy expert. He seemed practically insulted by my question and offered a rather belittling response as if I had asked about Italian colonization of Jupiter during the same period. However, I find that his reaction is not uncommon in the Italian-American community. Whether it is considered a stain on the iconic Ellis Island experience beloved by all or exposes hypocrisy in one's stance on modern immigration issues, frankly, there is no use denying that such activity occurred. It is a part of history and underscores the risks individuals were and are still willing to take for the sake of opportunities.