Private Dino Paparelli.jpgSurprising as it may be to Italian-American youth of today, with a Cuomo as governor of New York and a Scalia and an Alito as Supreme Court justices, this kid of 1950s’ Detroit hated his Italian name and resented his father for having conferred it.  “Angelo Alfredo Paparelli” was too much ethnicity to bear. 

I’m not named “Angelo” because of my father’s fondness for heavenly creatures, nor was I given the middle moniker “Alfredo” for his love of a certain pasta sauce.  Under the Italian naming tradition of primogenitore, my name was predestined.  The first-born male would take the first name of the paternal grandfather as the newborn’s first name, and the first name of the father as his middle name; and that was that.

I hated my name, not for any dislike of Italy, but because I yearned to be accepted as an American, just like the Nelsons and Cleavers on TV. My supposed TV role model, alas, was Private Dino Paparelli of the depressingly-titled You’ll Never Get Rich series (later known as The Phil Silvers Show), with the dim-witted Dino as one member of a crew of conniving Army motor-pool conscripts who regularly hoodwinked their WASPish officers.

Cass Tech.jpgI remember precisely when my name went from personal abhorrence to appreciation. The scene:  Cass Tech High School, near Downtown Detroit, during auditions for The Solid Gold Cadillac.  When the director called my name to audition, a beautiful blonde senior named Barbara exclaimed: “Angelo Paparelli! What a wonderful name!”   

I didn’t get the part, but I had a more valuable epiphany.  My name could be Ishkabibble or Geronimo — it didn’t matter.  I was just as American as former Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams, who had a house in Grosse Pointe, and the Boyd and Williams families of Black Americans in my neighborhood; no more or less American than the Poles of Hamtramck, the Mexicans who lived near Briggs (now Tiger) Stadium, the Jews of Oak Park, the Arabs of Dearborn, or the lesbians who frequented the bar around the corner. This epiphany probably had something, at least subliminally, to do with my becoming an immigration lawyer. 

Once ensconced in my chosen vocation, I learned, however, that immigration law is not ecumenical. I discovered that until 1952, non-whites could never become citizens (although native-born Blacks were Americans from day one under the 14th Amendment’s birthright citizenship clause). As my colleague Prof. Kevin R. Johnson notes in “THE ‘NEW’ CIVIL RIGHTS: IS THE ‘NEW’ BIRMINGHAM THE SAME AS THE ‘OLD’ BIRMINGHAM?,” a paper he’ll discuss with me at a Chapman University Sociology conference next week:

During the post-Civil War period, the largest groups of immigrants affected by the whiteness prerequisite for citizenship came from Asia. Asian immigrants perpetually were denied the opportunity to naturalize and become U.S. citizens (and thus were perpetually disenfranchised from the political process). [FN]

[FN] See, e.g., Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178, 190 (1922) (finding that Japanese immigrant was not eligible for naturalization); United States v. Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923) (same for immigrant from India).

Indeed, it was not until 1965 that the National Origins Formula, which effectively barred Asians from immigrating, was abolished with the passage of the Hart-Celler Act

Over the years, I’ve seen the immigration color and national-origin barriers resurface repeatedly.  If you’re a Cuban and arrive at Florida’s shores, we release you to family, let you stay and give you a green card under the Cuban Adjustment Act; not so, if you’re a Haitian. 

In the late 1980s, if you sought an L-1B work visa from the UK or France to work for a car company, you were in like a swoosh; but if you hailed from Japan and were destined for a job in the auto industry, the U.S. Consulate in Osaka persuaded INS that an extralegal moratorium on L-1B issuance was necessary.

Today, if you were born in Mexico, China or India, you face decades of waiting for your date with immigration destiny — your green card priority date.  Although this may change with enactment of a bill enjoying bipartisan support — The Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act — nothing will happen to eliminate this disparate treatment by place of birth until a certain senator from the Cornhusker State lifts his hold on the legislation. And Osaka Redux: The U.S. consular posts in India and the latter-day INS, USCIS, now have been unmasked as inexplicably denying a much larger percentage of L-1B visas and petitions for Indian citizens, while those from Europe sail through.

Even though Congress remains in suspended animation until November’s elections, immediate corrections are nevertheless possible. The Obama Administration can help eliminate these unlawful barriers.  A simple but emphatic executive order would do the trick. 

The President should declare that — unless affirmatively mandated by law — the federal immigration agencies shall:

  • Judge people seeking immigration benefits or relief from removal as individuals, based on the merit or demerit of their factual and legal circumstances.
  • Refrain from profiling people by color or national origin.
  • Apply neutrally phrased legislation even-handedly, without regard to any personal agenda of the adjudicator to serve as an unappointed line of defense against an influx of applicants from a particular country or with a certain complexion.

The President’s order should require the Secretaries of State, Labor, Justice and DHS to produce a formal plan in 90 days to investigate and eliminate racial and national-origin profiling, discipline or dismiss any immigration officials who are found to have engaged in prohibited profiling, and publish periodic progress reports.  Under the order, claims of racial or national-origin profiling should be jointly investigated and violations enforced by the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Justice department’s Civil Rights Division. 

As I write this blog, urging one more measure to make America a truly welcoming country, I sense my father is smiling from the grave.  He (very likely) and I (absolutely) are chuckling as we recall Mark Twain’s wisdom:

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

By the way, for those of you who’ve met me and are wondering why I have Americanized the pronunciation of my name, sounding out the letter “a” like the “BAA” of bleating sheep, just ask Antonio Mendoza in this classic Saturday Night Live sketch: