L’Archivio del Commissariato Generale dell’Emigrazione (Part II)

Authored by Michael Tomaselli

Figure 1 “Archive of the General Commission of Immigration (Part 2) and the General Directorate of Foreign Italians” – Finding Aid, Center of Migration Studies of New York, CMS.034

The Commissariato Generale dell’Emigratione (General Commission of Immigration) was founded on the 10th of January 1901(“Storiadigitale Zanichelli Percorso Site,” n.d.). The goal, in conjunction with the Direzione Generale degli Italiani all’Estero (General Directorate of Foreign Italians was to regulate the transmission of ideas into the country that might destabilize the regime and to protect citizens abroad. With Italian Unification ending in 1870, the Italian regime had to use every possible way to control its citizens in this nebulous time. Italy saw the world changing. Connections were being made faster than neurons firing. However, Italy saw the misfires as well. Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1884, ending with the line, “Workers of the World, Unite,” while witnessing the wildfire of social revolutions and reforms take shape across Europe(Marx, Engels, and Toews 1999, 96). Regimes fell, splintered, and reformed; and Italy was determined not to succumb. In order to do this, the government tried to barricade against the rising tide of the social agenda.

As historian Phillip Taylor mentions in his work, Distant Magnet, Italy worked to protect itself by quarantining immigrants coming into the country by constructing “Disinfecting Stations” near major port cities like Naples (Taylor 1971, 149). At different periods these stations were directed at baggage as opposed to persons, but the intent was the same. Restricting people from entering a country can restrict different perspectives, something that would become vital with the struggle to indoctrinate the population with the emergence of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime.

Immigrants were often treated as cancerous growths on a nation. Often immigrants in these quarantine stations were subject to horrid conditions. For example, in Mary Antin’s The Promised Land similar stations are described as an epoch of anxiety and loneliness (Antin 1912, 177). For fear of physically or ideologically polluting the population, people that were deemed dangerous were confined in small areas, undergoing physical examinations by physicians as well as examinations of belongings. However, these people often were escaping poverty-stricken locations, such as the mezzogiorno. This region of southern Italy was the agricultural base of the nation. However, with the intense push of social development in industry of the north, the economy of the south suffered.

As historian Benedict Anderson states in his work Imagined Communities, the very concept of national identities is imagined because the everyday person will not know everyone else in the nation(Anderson 1991, 6). The nation must create the sense of commonality amongst its people, and also amidst the world surrounding it. Italy constantly dealt with struggles from foreign and domestic forces. How do you convince everyone in a new country they are a part of something larger? Or how do you rationalize your borders to neighbors who might claim authority? Italy chose to control the movements of people. The government saw its purpose as to reinforce these differences and define immigrants as the concept of the “other.”

It is through the examination of laws dealing with those entering or exiting the country that we can begin to understand the fears of a culture. Much like the warning labels of everyday products, laws act to guide a population towards an often-nebulous goal. When examining these laws, an important element is to understand the difference between law and interpretation. As a people, we interpret everything differently. We carry the experiences and circumstances that shape our identity, fears, and hopes. All too often, the questions of identity, fear, and hope are used as rationalizations to defend against an oncoming enemy as opposed to deal with the underlying social issues. When examining what was not said, what was not opposed, and how these laws were implemented we can begin to feel the pulse of shifting populations often struggling to understand themselves.


Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. and extended ed. London ; New York: Verso.

Antin, Mary. 1912. The Promised Land. Houghton, Mifflin and Company.

Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, and John Edward Toews. 1999. The Communist Manifesto: With Related Documents. The Bedford Series in History and Culture. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

“Storiadigitale Zanichelli Linker – Percorso Site.” n.d. Accessed October 12, 2018. http://dizionaripiu.zanichelli.it/storiadigitale/p/percorso/93/1698/l-italia-giolittiana-commissariato-generale-dell-immigrazione&xid=17259,15700021,15700124,15700149,15700186,15700191,15700201,15700214&usg=ALkJrhi6NPHk7Pdv-iuvw7gGqC-UJpbLMQ.

Taylor, Philip A. M. 1971. The Distant Magnet: European Emigration to the U.S.A. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode.