My Parents Were 'Somebody Else's Babies'—And Model Americans

Steve King's nativism is wrong on all counts.


Both of my parents were "somebody else's babies."

According to Rep. Steve King, the Republican from Iowa, that means they could never really be American. In fact, King implies that people like my parents—born to Irish and Italian immigrants, in 1923 and 1927, respectively—were part of Western Civilization's decline.

You've got to wonder about King, citing a nativist Dutch politician for wisdom on American immigration policy. Doesn't he understand that, unlike America, European countries are notoriously rotten at assimilating newcomers? For decades after World War II, for instance, West Germany permitted Gastarbeiter from lesser countries such as Turkey, Italy, and Tunisia to come and clean toilets and do work Germans didn't want to do. The children of immigrants, even those born in Germany, could legally reside there but they could never become citizens (the laws eventually changed). Rooted in traditions of "blood and soil"—what King calls "culture and demographics"—most European countries had or still have some variation on what Germany had. Going way back, even before there was a United States, we had a tradition of human alchemy. In 1782, Jean de Crevecoeur—a French emigre, of all things—wrote,

What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.

He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.

Crevecoeur had his limits, to be sure. He speaks only of men and he owned slaves for a time. And yet he sketched a fundamentally different way of thinking about "culture and demographics" than the one that prevailed in Europe and elsewhere. King should spend some time with Letters From an American Farmer. It's in texts such as that one that true "American Exceptionalism" was born. What is different about America isn't that we're richer or more powerful than other countries. Certainly, it's not that our gene pool is better. It's that relative to most of the rest, we let everyone in, confident that giving people space and freedom would create something special and unique.

A hundred years ago, real Americans—folks such as Teddy Roosevelt and his friend Madison Grant, the head of the Museum of Natural History in New York and the author of The Passing of the Great Race—didn't care much for the Irish and the Italians. The Immigration Act of 1917 changed who was allowed to come here and in what numbers. Building off such predecessors as The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (which did exactly what it promised), the 1917 law barred Asians completely and imposed literacy tests as a way of keeping out Europeans from undesirable nations. It set the stage for 1924 legislation that would impose quotas based on national origins. According to Grant, whose grasp of geography was every bit as shaky as he was certain about race, both the Irish and most Italians were "Mediterraneans," the lowest form of whites. The historian Geoffrey Perrett writes that by the early 20th century, after decades of heavy immigration from Europe and the rise of polyglot cities due to industrialization, WASP elites had a palpable "sense of being cornered within their own country." That sounds familiar, doesn't it? In the 1920s, as now, there was a cottage industry in defining exactly who could be a real American, an anxiety that rumbles through novels such as The Great Gatsby (1925) like the roar of the title character's death-dealing roadster. At the end of the story, the narrator, Nick Carraway, evacuates New York City, a throbbing mess of a city now populated by uppity blacks, short-lipped Italians, and gangster Jews for a place "where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name."

"One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time," Nick recounts. "Are you going to the Ordways'? the Herseys'? the Schultzes'?…That's my Middle West—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth.…I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name.

It must have been nice to live in a world like that one, with prep schools and a fixed social order populated by people with English and Teutonic names. It's an America that none of us born since World War II have ever known and never will know, thank god.

But back to my parents: Their parents came to America during the middle 1910s, fleeing centuries of poverty, mistreatment, and World War I once they finally had a way out. They were peasants and wanted out of a continent that only needed them for menial tasks and as human fodder in horrific battles such Arras, the Marne, and the Somme. At least my Irish grandparents spoke English, which Steve King told Tucker Carlson last night expresses freedom better than any other language. My Italian grandparents never learned English for all the years they lived in America. In Waterbury, Connecticut they were able to live into the 1980s in a community that spoke Italian (that's my New England, not the village greens or Congregationalist churches or Plymouth Rock but the plastic-slip-covered Italian ghettoes of a post-industrial hellhole). Despite being from old Europe, my grandparents were model Americans. Mostly, they worked hard as hell and provided for their children under difficult circumstances (prejudice, economic depression, war). The first job my grandfather Nicola Guida had in the promised land of America was chiseling rock with a hammer and sledge somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania (he and his fellow workers were never told exactly where they were to make it harder to run away). He would be so tired that he would piss and shit himself as he slept at night, unable to get up to use the facilities.

As befits "somebody else's baby," my mother didn't speak English until she went to grammar school. Neither did her two brothers. They were "somebody else's babies" too, even when they fought for America in World War II and Korea. My father also fought in World War II, landing in France as part of the Normandy campaign and fighting his way east into Germany, serving in all the major campaigns in Western Europe. When did they all become real Americans? Was it when my Uncle John landed in Sicily, as part of a force invading the country his parents had left not 20 years before? Was it when my father took Nazi bullets in the Mosel Valley and earned a Purple Heart?

No, they became Americans long before any of that. So did my mother and my aunts. And my grandparents. It's not complicated, not dramatic, and none of it has changed in the past 60 or 70 or 80 or 200 years. They all became American when they showed up here or were born here, when they went to school, and when they started working (at 13 years old for my father and a few years later for my mother). But maybe it was only after World War II that they became fully American, when they helped birth the baby boom generation and they moved to the suburbs like everyone else and ethnic stories such as The Godfather and Portnoy's Complaint and Roots became central to our national catechism. Here's the thing about "becoming" American: It's the easiest thing in the world. You just have to live here, work here, get along here.

The Irish and the Italians, like today's Mexicans and Latin Americans, weren't particularly welcome and they brought odd customs (Catholicism first and foremost) with them. They changed the culture in superficial ways such as food and language but mostly they were formed by American institutions such as private property and economic opportunity. I swear to Christ that I've never met a purer American than my Italian grandfather, who dug basements with a pick and shovel by hand during the Depression and with whom I never had a conversation more complex than his telling me I was a good boy. He might as well have been speaking Mexican as far as I or Steve King are concerned. Today's immigration restrictionists will tell you that the essential difference between the once-hated-and-feared-subhuman Europeans from 100 years ago and now is that we now have a vast welfare state in place so we can't afford newcomers. The terrorism of the Molly Maguires or Sacco and Vanzetti was totally different than the threats posed by refugees fleeing parts of the world that we've occupied for decades now. Our economy is changing and leaving too many people behind.

But the simple fact is that today's immigrants, legal and illegal, can't and don't access much in the form of welfare and transfer payments. They cause less crime than native-born Americans and they expand the economy wherever they show up, mostly by taking jobs that Americans won't do. They learn English at the same rate as previous immigrants. These are facts and they are as true in the Muslim-plurality cities of Dearborn and Hamtramck, Michigan as they are in mostly white Iowa.

Americans are known for nothing if not optimism. It's strange then that Steve King, Donald Trump, and other restrictionists would fret so much over the decline of civilization and "somebody else's babies." If history teaches us anything, it's that countries such as Japan, which refuses to allow much in the way of immigration, is growing old and dying. The same can be said of much of Europe, too, where birth rates are below replacement levels. In America, we still have the alchemical touch of which Crevecoeur spoke even as the only reason our population is growing is because of newcomers. Within a few years of showing up, people become American and their children are too. That's not a threat to our "civilization." It's the only reason it survives.