Imagine your ancestor as the character in a fairy tale or fable. How would that story unfold? This will help put their experiences into perspective.

Italy has a long history of emigration, with millions of Italians leaving their homeland in search of economic opportunities and a better life abroad. Many Italian immigrants settled in countries like the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, etc. As a result, people of Italian descent can be found in communities worldwide.

Italian Birds of Passage

Many Italian men left their families to travel and work in America. This group, known disparagingly as the Birds of Passage, traveled from their southern Italian homeland to seek seasonal employment in America, sending remittances back home throughout the year until they had made enough money to return again and again. Unlike other European immigrants of the time, who came to America fleeing religious persecution or poverty, this group sought economic freedom and opportunity.

They worked in New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago. These men took the complex labor jobs needed to support modern industry and endured harsh working conditions, sometimes in a foreign language and far from their families. They searched for a better life and found it, although they were not always welcome.

Despite the economic benefits of their work, these men experienced discrimination and xenophobia in the United States. The American government did not always treat them fairly, and they often had difficulty securing housing or finding medical care. They were also targets of organized crime in the form of clan-based gangs.

After World War I, immigration laws became more restrictive, and passenger lists were separated by those who had already traveled to America and those who hadn’t. Once these men could no longer send their remittances home quickly, they had to decide whether to stay in America and become citizens or return to Italy.

First Time Immigrants

The first wave of Italian immigrants came to the United States in the late 1800s. They left their homelands in search of economic opportunity and freedom from political oppression, and they transformed American society and culture. Their contribution to the country is recognized and celebrated each October during Italian-American Heritage Month.

Immigration to the United States peaked in volume during this period due to rapid population growth in many source countries, industrialization, and the gap between real wages at home and in the United States. A decline followed this peak in immigration as various European changes brought the economic situation back into balance and discouraged migrants.

Most of the immigration to the United States occurred along the coasts. The largest ports of entry were New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. Other ports included the Newark, N.J., and Buffalo ports in the north. Those ports served as staging points for many passengers who traveled to Montreal, Canada, and then to New York or other eastern cities.

Second Time Immigrants

Many second-generation immigrants (born in the United States to parents who immigrated there) continue to identify with their homeland culture and traditions. They often struggle to assimilate into the mainstream of American society and may experience tension between their cultural heritage and the cultures of their new homeland. They also tend to have lower incomes and less educational attainment than third-generation Americans of comparable backgrounds.

The twentieth century saw increased immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, particularly Italy. This “third wave” of immigration prompted a nativist backlash. 

Unlike nineteenth-century immigrants, most of these newcomers could find employment in the United States. However, they were still forced to struggle with language and culture barriers. They also faced social tensions, discrimination, and stereotyping even though they contributed to America’s economy, enriched its culture through food, music, and art, and strengthened national security through military service.

The Library of Congress has several valuable resources for researching Italian genealogical group, including the Ellis Island passenger arrival database (1892-1924). 

Third Time Immigrants

Currently, more than 45.3 million immigrants live in the United States. They come from all over the world and represent over a quarter of the nation’s population. Immigrants bring their traditions, culture, and drive for education, advancement, and success.

The influx of new migrants in recent decades reflects essential shifts in U.S. immigration policy, including the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which ended the national origin quotas that favored certain racial and ethnic groups, the creation of a formal refugee resettlement program with the 1980 Refugee Act and the Cold War-era grant of preferential treatment to Cuban refugees. These trends have magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, which created pent-up demand for permanent and temporary visas, more sophisticated smuggling networks, and economic transformation and political instability in Latin America and Asia.

Researching Italian ancestors is complicated because nearly all records useful for genealogy are created at the town [comune] level and are often based on church records. Consequently, knowing the ancestor’s town of origin is crucial before starting your search in Italy.