At a gathering in West Virginia on Thursday, President Trump tossed aside his planned remarks and read instead from a script he knows by heart: invoking the street gang MS-13 to argue for militarizing the border and curbing immigration to the United States. MS-13 is a gang often portrayed as a well-organized, multinational offshoot of a criminal empire in Central America. Earlier this year, Trump claimed that members of the group “took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors,” where they then allegedly turned to butchering American citizens.
With the MS-13 as bogeyman, Trump has found an opportune way to combine his two pet projects: law-and-order politics and immigration restrictions. He is not the first to do so. About 100 years ago, the United States was working through a similarly constructed crisis. Members of law enforcement and urban politicians thought that lax immigration laws had spawned a massive and global criminal enterprise of Italian origin, one responsible for everything from petty street crime to the assassination of police and politicians across the world.
With the Americanness of people of Italian descent no longer in question, it’s necessary to remember how people used a small criminal minority to deny the opportunity of immigration to working-class Italians. The early-20th-century crisis over Italian crime can teach us how the entanglement of criminal law with immigration policy often serves the dual purpose of criminalizing law-abiding immigrants and maintaining the racial and cultural status quo of the United States.
Between 1870 and 1920, about 4 million people fleeing political repression and high unemployment emigrated from southern Italy to the United States. During this 50-year period, the Italian population of New York City alone increased eightfold. Police officials in New York thought that, because of their experiences with inconsistent policing and repression in Italy, these immigrants were particularly susceptible to organized crime.
Ultimately, it was the Black Hand, the MS-13 of its day, that captured the attention of police, politicians and the press, which argued that this criminal enterprise was at the core of Italian immigration.
“It has been said by a police official that wherever are Italians there, too, is the Black Hand,” wrote one journalist in 1908. “Every day new offenses are committed — stores or homes are damaged or destroyed, mutilated men are found dead or dying in the streets, children are stolen.” At the time, just being Italian made one suspect of being capable of such crimes.
Many native-born Americans and even earlier generations of immigrants thought that cracking down on these immigrant crimes required shutting down immigration altogether. Arthur Woods, the deputy commissioner of the New York City Police Department, declared, “Immigration authorities with their present powers cannot possibly fulfill the evident intent of Congress and sort these people out unfailingly from among the great masses of immigrants.”
Just as the FBI has recently portrayed MS-13 in the United Staets as taking orders “from MS-13 members in El Salvador,” law enforcement at the time imagined a vast network of Black Hand members slipping back and forth through immigration control. This supposedly allowed murderers and criminals to escape from justice in the United States by retreating to Italy, and men wanted by authorities in Italy to cross the ocean to disappear into the chaotic industrial cities of the United States.
The fear that the immigration bureau was not powerful enough to sift hard-working Italians from Black Hand members led many, including nativist politician Henry Cabot Lodge, to advocate severely restricting all immigration to the United States.
Tellingly, such restrictions were expected to solve more issues than just Black Hand crime. Racial scientists, ethnologists, politicians and police alike all portrayed Italian immigrants not only as uncivilized, but also as completely unassimilable to the American way of life. As such, their very presence on U.S. soil represented a threat to the cultural fabric of the nation.
Although concerned about crime in their neighborhoods, many Italian immigrants understood the prejudice behind the campaign against the Black Hand. Under threat of increased immigration restrictions, some Italian Americans worked to undermine the Black Hand myth. One middle-class Italian American admitted that local Italian criminals were sometimes in contact with one another but argued that “they are no more organized, however, than are the many thousands of lawbreakers of other nationalities in America.”
Even Joseph Petrosino, an Italian immigrant and the New York City Police Department’s resident expert on Italian crime, was recorded in the New York Times as believing that the Black Hand was a myth: “He came to the conclusion that the so-called Black Hand were really small bands of outlaws, who delighted in the impression which had gone out that they had a powerful fraternity behind it. This played right into their hands, and they made the most of it.”
Public fear of immigrant crimes gave the gangs more and more rhetorical power until they constituted such an existential threat in the minds of Americans that immigration was essentially shut down by the 1921 and 1924 immigration acts. By 1909, the reach of the Black Hand seemed so long that when the U.S. consul to Sicily had to flee Palermo for fear that he might be assassinated, special precaution was taken to hide him in an undisclosed location in Upstate New York. Detectives thought that revealing his location, even once he was in the United States, might prove a fatal mistake.
Now, it’s happening again. There is no doubt that violence does extend into immigrant neighborhoods, as it does into most communities, but that does not change the fact that the past few years have been some of the least violent in U.S. history. The aggrandizing and inflating of MS-13 by politicians seeking to scare voters has more to do with preserving a certain racial makeup in the country than it does with eliminating crime. Overstating the omnipresence and power of MS-13 ultimately allows groups like it to claim more authority and obscures the real vulnerabilities and challenges that immigrant communities face in the United States.