Their Own Two Feet

Aug 30 · 12 min read
via @usciscuccinelli on Twitter.

As the new public face of the Trump administration’s draconian immigration policies, acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli has wasted no time stirring up collective ire. Most notably, he set off a firestorm of criticism by rewriting the iconic Emma Lazarus poem that has long functioned as a kind of unofficial American immigration mantra. “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” he proudly told NPR’s Rachel Martin, who somehow resisted the urge to burst out laughing and/or slap him upside the head. (You can read several historians’ takes on the public charge rule here, but suffice it to say that the concept, which was meant to weed out only the very, very least desirable of immigrants, has never been enforced as rigorously as Cuccinelli is suggesting.)

Cuccinelli later elaborated that Lazarus’ poem was “referring back to people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies, where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class.” Wink wink, nudge, nudge, we hear you! And if you had the word “Europe” in Bigotry Bingo, drink!

For the past two years, I’ve run a project called #resistancegenealogy, which looks at the family histories of public figures in order to show just how similar so many of our stories really are. Cuccinelli’s very public numbskullery definitely set a new record: never before I have I received so many texts, tweets, emails and Facebook messages from people so eager to learn about someone’s family tree. (Side note: Never before have I seen so many people who’ve never done genealogy try to do it themselves and get it so very very wrong. You realize more than one person in a town can have the same name, right? And that not all records are online? And that other people’s public family trees are very often…wrong? Here, read this.)

And never before has a family history — or at least the Italian half of that history that I’ll address here — been so utterly unsurprising. I mean, where did you all think the story of the Cuccinelli family of Hoboken, New Jersey was going to go, really? C’mon now.

And so, here I am, just a girl with some documents, standing in front of her country, asking it not to betray its immigrant past. Asking it to remember that welcoming the “wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” even when that “refuse” comes with little more than grit, determination and a desire to do better for their children, is a bedrock American value, a value that allowed many of you reading these words right now to be here. It’s a value that allowed Ken Cuccinelli — descended from Southern Italians of modest means and little education who would likely never pass muster under the proposed changes — to be here. I mean, hellooooo? Were you listening at all during the 4th grade unit on immigration?

Cuccinelli called a New York Daily News article about his family history (albeit one that only guesses — largely incorrectly — about their exact route here) “intellectually dishonest.” Any comparison to past immigrants, he maintained, was invalid because “the welfare state didn’t exist back then.”

Nativists love to fall back on this argument, but they also still love to contrast the behavior of current immigrants with what they believe to be their own ancestors’ spotless — and “legal!” — immigration and assimilation histories, despite the fact that comparisons to “legal” immigration at a time when there were almost no immigration laws for Europeans to break are inherently problematic. And despite the fact that the historical record is often at odds with their starry-eyed, mythologized understanding of their ancestors’ pasts.

“My great-grandfather knew upon arriving in the United States that he had to learn English and that he had to work hard to succeed in this country,” Cuccinelli told the Daily News.

“My family worked together to ensure that they could provide for their own needs, and they never expected the government to do it for them,” he said at a press briefing.

I’m so very very tired of telling you this very same story over and over again, but since so many of you asked — some less politely than others, btw, can we please work on that moving forward? — let’s go to the videotape and look at the Cuccinelli family story, shall we?

THE CUCCINELLIS

Ken Cuccinelli’s paternal grandfather, Dominick Luigi Cuccinelli, was born in Hoboken, New Jersey to — are you sitting down? — Italian immigrant parents who’d only been in the country for about ten years. Ken’s great-grandfather was Domenico Cuccinelli (né Cucciniello) born on the 6th of December, 1874 in Avellino, Italy. His 1897 marriage certificate identifies him and his wife, Fortuna Preziosi, as farmers.

In March of 1901, Domenico became part of the massive wave of Italians who lit out for greater opportunity and stability in America, sailing on the SS Patria from Naples. Identified as a “laborer,” he arrived at Ellis Island with $8.75, equivalent to about $260 today. His contact in the U.S.? An unnamed cousin already living on Adams Street in Hoboken.

Ancestry indexed this record under “Camiello.” Which may be why you couldn’t find it.

Domenico’s wife Fortuna would follow her husband to America the following year on the Algeria, arriving at Ellis Island with their two small children and $20.

via FamilySearch.org

It’s important to remember that for all our talk of welcoming the huddled masses with open arms, American immigration history also has a pronounced strain of ugly nativism, a rather ironic twist for a nation founded on stolen land. (And we’re talking here only about immigrants by choice.) Which means that Ken Cuccinelli’s immigrant family was subjected to the very same brand of bigoted suspicion that he is now trying to inflict on others. The Ken Cuccinellis of the early twentieth century — though they didn’t typically have last names like Cuccinelli — were just as insistent that people like the Cuccinellis didn’t have the right to become Americans. That they wouldn’t fit in. That they had nothing to offer and would only be a drain on “our” resources.

“[Italians] are coming in waves and think they have a right to come….There has been a surfeit of unskilled illiterates for years and the people do not want any more of them,” opined the Jersey (City) Journal on November 29, 1902, just a few months after Ken’s great-grandmother arrived there.

So what became of the Cuccinellis? Well, the first we see of the family in American records is in the 1905 New Jersey state census. Father Domenico is employed as a laborer, supporting a family of six. And though they’ve been in the U.S. for three and four years at this point, neither parent reported being able to speak English.

But as is so often the case, the Cuccinelli family moved up in the world. By the 1915 census, both Domenico and Fortuna are listed as literate and English speaking, despite his having never had a formal education and her having only completed eighth grade. In 1919, Domenico, still working as a laborer and now living in nearby Jersey City, declared his intention to become an American citizen, a process he completed three years later.

You’ll notice the family’s 1922 address: 401 Monroe Street in Hoboken, where they are also listed in the 1925 city directory. Just a few houses down on Monroe (the entire neighborhood has streets grandly named after American presidents, incidentally) was another family headed by Italian immigrants — a boilermaker and a midwife. They had a son named Frank just a few years younger than Ken’s grandfather Dominick. Perhaps you’ll recognize the last name and wonder what would have been lost had his immigrant parents been barred.

1925 Hoboken city directory, via Ancestry

By 1930, Domenico Cuccinelli owned a home on Madison Street. And by 1940, he and his wife were comfortably retired, living in a house worth $5000, the very picture of the American dream.

1940 Federal Census via Ancestry

THE POLICASTROS

Ken’s grandmother Josephine Policastro Cuccinelli was also the Jersey-born daughter of Italian immigrants: Gaetano Policastro and Maria Ronga (also spelled Rongo) from Monte San Giacomo in Salerno.

A teenaged Maria Ronga (her birth certificate indicates she was 17) arrived at Ellis Island in November of 1903 with her widowed 48-year-old mother, Giuseppa Romano, who has no listed occupation, and three younger siblings. Giuseppa’s husband Giuseppe Ronga, a tailor, had died in 1901 at the age of 44, which may have played a role in their decision to move. With all of $5 between the five of them, they were detained at Ellis Island — as indicated by the “S.I.” for “Special Inquiry” stamped by their names in the margin of the manifest. The “Record of Aliens Held For Special Inquiry” list indicates the reason they were held, abbreviated as “L.P.C.;” it stands for “Likely Public Charge.” So yes, the great-grandmother of the man now beating the drums to tighten the public charge rule was…labeled a likely public charge herself.

After a day’s detainment and a hearing — at which Maria’s older brother Vincenzo, who paid for their passage, would have likely been called to testify that he could support his mother and siblings — the family was allowed to enter the United States, as were more than 98% of those who came through Ellis Island.

But make no mistake: there were many who would have happily sent the Rongas packing. Witness this Judge magazine cartoon from the very year they arrived, which depicts southern European immigrants as filthy rats, bringing crime and anarchy into the country. (Nice Mafia hats, right?) Doesn’t this sound… familiar?

The new arrivals moved in with Maria’s older brother Vincenzo, now going by the name James, in Hoboken. Ken’s great-grandmother Maria found work as a candy maker, as shown in the 1905 census.

Two and a half years after her arrival, though she is somehow still only 17, Maria “Ronca” (age and spelling are slippery concepts, genealogically speaking) married Gaetano “Thomas” Policastro, a recently widowed father of two with an eighth grade education. Gaetano was also born in Monte San Giacomo and appears to have immigrated as a child in the 1880s.

In 1908, Thomas and Maria had the first of their eight children together, Ken’s grandmother Josephine. The 1910 census shows them living with Maria’s family, including her mother Josephine Romano Ronga. Thomas is working as a salesman at a market. Both the 1910 and 1920 census indicated that Ken’s great-great-grandmother Josephine never learned English, even after being in the country for 17 years. And…so what? Immigrants often took their sweet time learning to speak English, if at all. Their children learned to speak English at school so that one day their great-great-grandsons could become the attorney general of Virginia and maybe one day feel the need to cover up the naked statute in the state symbol. Problem solved.

1910 Federal Census, via Ancestry
1920 Federal Census, via Ancestry

Though the 1930 census shows the Policastros owning a home worth $12,000, as the nation tumbled deeper into the grips of the Great Depression, like so many Americans, they appear to have fallen on hard times. A series of legal notices in the Jersey Journal (available on GenealogyBank) gesture to the outlines of the story: A lawsuit over non-payment on a $8150 bank note. A foreclosure on the Policastro home on Paterson Plank Road. A bankruptcy hearing. A District Court judgment against Thomas for $450, filed by James Ronga. Would the Policastros have met their own great-grandson’s requirement that immigrants always “carry their own weight?” (According to the Annual report of the Attorney General of the United States, about 1300 of New Jersey’s approximately four million residents voluntarily filed for personal bankruptcy in the fiscal year ended 1931.)

But by 1940, now nearing 60, Thomas Policastro had rebounded. The census shows him renting a home in nearby North Bergen. He is listed as the proprietor of a scrap metal business, and earning $1300 a year, right around the national average. Two of his American-born sons served during World War II. The Policastros proved that they deserved the chance they were given — the chance to have ups and downs and everything in between, the chance to pave the way for future generations to soar.

1940 Federal census, via Ancestry

But one last point. Like the Cuccinellis, the Policastros also had neighbors of note, though they may not have been as well-known as the Sinatras. In 1920, the Policastros lived just a mile away from another Jersey City family headed by a Jewish immigrant who never completed high school and worked for decades at an overalls factory in nearby Paterson. This family was from the former Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, and had arrived in 1896. Much like the Policastros, this family also eventually found themselves in the pages of the local newspaper. In 1940, the patriarch was arrested with his son-in-law and two other men on charges of stealing from that very same overalls factory; the charges were later dropped and the sentence suspended after they made restitution. But all of that Jewish immigrant’s grandsons would go on to college and upstanding careers. Two served in the military. One became a lawyer. One had a master’s degree. And in the fall of 1986, one of that immigrant’s great-granddaughters left Long Island to enroll at the University of Virginia, a venerable institution founded by an American president. Here she is in the First Year Faces Book, resplendent in a Benetton vest and pearls.

And one of her classmates at that venerable institution? Well, she knew him by his nickname: “Cooch.”

So yes, the scions of two Jersey City families headed by those uneducated and sometimes troubled immigrants seemed to have done alright for themselves. It’s a quintessentially American story, one I see day in and day out doing genealogical research: immigrant narratives are messy and imperfect and complicated but almost universally, they ultimately end with those families in a much better place than they would have been otherwise. That same great-grandfather’s sister, for instance, stayed behind in their ancestral town of Sniatyn and is presumed murdered during the Holocaust. So was my maternal grandfather’s brother, despite his writing a desperate letter to President “Rosiwelt” begging for refuge for his family in America.

How many future Ken Cuccinellis are the Trump administration’s increasingly restrictive immigration policies going to keep out? Who or what are those policies protecting, other than unfounded racist fears that follow in the very worst of American traditions?

Just about twenty years after Ken Cuccinelli’s family arrived from Italy and began their ascent up the ladder of the American dream, the ladder that lifted him to the grounds of Mr. Jefferson’s University and to law school at George Mason, to elected office in the state of Virginia and to a nomination to head a federal agency, Congress enacted the infamous Johnson-Reed Act, which set up quotas specifically designed to keep out people just like them. The number of Italians arriving in America dropped from 200,000 a year in the first decade of the twentieth century to under 4,000.

As Cuccinelli’s own career makes clear, the critics were dead wrong about the potential contributions of humble immigrants like his ancestors. And so is he.

CREDITS: I’m grateful to Megan Smolenyak, Michael Cassara, Rich Venezia and Tammy Hepps, who provided research, translation and editorial assistance.

Thanks to Megan Smolenyak

Jennifer Mendelsohn

Written by

NYT Bestselling author of The Hunger Games. Oh wait, that's not me. Mom. Journo/Ghostwriter. #resistancegenealogy founder. Recovering Long Islander.

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