Internment of Italian Americans

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Italian American internment
Date 1941 – 1944
Location United States

The internment of Italian Americans refers to the internment of Italian citizens in the United States during World War II. Unlike the Japanese Americans who were interned during the war, they have never received reparations.[1] However, unlike Japanese-Americans, only citizens of Italy were detained.[2] In 2010, the California Legislature passed a resolution apologizing for the mistreatment of Italian residents.[3]


The term "Italian American" does not have a legal definition. It is generally understood to mean ethnic Italians of American nationality, whether Italian-born immigrants to the United States (naturalized or unnaturalized) or American-born people of Italian descent (natural-born U.S. citizens).

The term "enemy alien" has a legal definition. The relevant federal statutes in Chapter 3 of Title 50 of the United States Code, for example par. 21,[4] which applies only to persons 14 years of age or older who are within the United States and not naturalized. Under this provision, which was first defined and enacted in 1798 (in the Alien Enemies Act, one of the four Alien and Sedition Acts) and amended in 1918 (in the Sedition Act of 1918) to apply to females as well as to males, all "...natives, citizens, denizens or subjects..." of any foreign nation or government with which the United States is at war "...are liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured and removed as alien enemies...."[5]

At the outbreak of World War II, for example, all persons born in Italy living in the United States, whether US citizens, lawful full time or part-time residents, or as members of the diplomatic and business community, where considered by law "enemy aliens." However, applying the standard to all persons including US Citizens became problematic given the huge numbers Italian immigrants and the even larger numbers of their descendants. Accordingly, it was most often applied to Italian born persons who were not citizens but especially to Italian diplomats, Italian businessmen, and Italian international students studying in the United States all became "enemy aliens" the moment Italy declared war on the United States. In some cases, such temporary residents were expelled (such as diplomats) or given a chance to leave the country when war was declared. Some were interned, as were the Italian merchant seamen caught in U.S. ports when their ships were impounded when war broke out in Europe in 1939.

The members of the Italian community in the United States presented an unusual problem. Defined in terms of national origin, it was the largest community in the United States, having been supplied by a steady flow of immigrants from Italy between the 1880s and 1930. By 1940, there were in the United States millions of native-born Italians who were American citizens. There were also a great many Italian "enemy aliens", more than 600,000, according to most sources, who had immigrated during the previous decades and had not become naturalized citizens of the United States.

The laws regarding "enemy aliens" did not make ideological distinctions—treating as legally the same pro-Fascist Italian businessmen living for a short time in the U.S. and trapped there when war broke out, anti-Fascist refugees from Italy who arrived a few years earlier intending to become U.S. citizens but who had not completed the process of naturalization, and those who had emigrated from Italy at the turn of the 20th century and raised entire families of native-born Italian Americans but who were not naturalized themselves. They were all considered enemy aliens.

Before United States entry into World War II[edit]

In September 1939, Britain and France declared war against Nazi Germany after Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. In a show of support for Britain and France, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, to compile a Custodial Detention Index of those to be arrested in case of national emergency. The Axis powers allied with Germany included Fascist Italy and the Japanese Empire. More than a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Department of Justice began to list possible saboteurs and enemy agents among the German, Japanese, and Italian populations.[6]

In 1940, resident aliens were required to register under the Smith Act.

War relocation centers[edit]

A distinction must be made between:

  • Italian Americans designated "enemy aliens" (non-U.S. citizens) as defined by Title 50 of the United States Code[7]
  • Italian Americans who were evacuated and interned under the War Relocation Authority. This authority was based on Executive Order 9066 (issued February 19, 1942) and Executive Order 9102 (issued March 18, 1942). These orders authorized the "removal from designated areas of persons whose removal is necessary in the interests of national security."[8] That authority did not distinguish between native-born Americans and citizens of other nations living in the United States; the orders simply said "persons." This was the same basis upon which Japanese Americans were interned, an effort much larger in scale than Italian American internment. Indeed, both foreign-born and native-born Japanese Americans and both citizens and non-citizens were interned, though the majority (about 60 percent) were in fact native-born U.S. citizens.[9][10][11] Italian Americans interned under the War Relocation Authority were not arrested under the Enemy Alien Act, but were simply "persons" removed under the War Relocation Authority.

Di Stasi[12] cites a number of such cases of mistreatment and internment of "Italian Americans", although he apparently defines "Italian American" as anyone within the Italian community, native-born U.S. citizens or Italian-born non-U.S. citizens.

1941 to 1943[edit]

Chronology of events regarding the treatment of enemy aliens and the reaction in the Italian community.

  • In the months immediately after the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, hundreds of Italians were arrested. On December 11, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy declared war on the United States. The United States reciprocated and entered World War II. By June 1942, the total reached 1,521 Italian aliens arrested by the FBI.[12] About 250 individuals were interned for up to two years in military camps in Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas.
  • In late December 1941, enemy aliens throughout the United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were required to surrender hand cameras, short-wave radio receiving sets and radio transmitters not later than 11 p.m. on the following Monday.[13]
  • In January 1942, all enemy aliens were required to register at local post offices. As enemy aliens they were required to be fingerprinted, photographed, and carry their photo-bearing "enemy alien registration cards" at all times. Attorney General Francis Biddle assured enemy aliens that they would not be discriminated against if they were loyal. He cited Department of Justice figures: of the 1,100,000 enemy aliens in the United States, 92,000 were Japanese, 315,000 were German, and 695,000 were Italian. In all, 2,972 had been arrested and held, mostly Japanese and Germans. Only 231 Italians had been arrested.[14]
  • On January 11, the New York Times reported that "Representatives of 200,000 Italian-American trade unionists appealed to President Roosevelt yesterday to 'remove the intolerable stigma of being branded as enemy aliens' from Italian and German nationals who had formally declared their intentions of becoming American citizens by taking out first papers before America's entry into the war."[15]
  • A few weeks later, the same newspaper reported that "Thousands of enemy aliens living in areas adjacent to shipyards, docks, power plants and defense factories prepared today to find new homes as Attorney General Biddle added sixty-nine more districts in California to the earlier list of West Coast sections barred to Japanese, Italian and German nationals.[16]
  • On February 1, the Justice Department warned all aliens of enemy nationalities fourteen years of age or older that they had to register within the week if they lived in the states of Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Montana, Utah or Idaho. Failure to do so could result in severe penalties, including internment for the duration of the war.[17]
  • Later in February, the Italian American Labor Council, founded by Luigi Antonini, met in New York and voiced "opposition to any blanket law for aliens that does not differentiate between those who are subversive and those who are loyal to America."[18]
  • In March, the War Relocation Authority is established (see above). Again, the relocation of citizens and non-citizens, alike, under this authority was legally quite different than the arrest and detention of foreign nationals under the Enemy Alien Act. By September 23, 1942, the Justice Department claimed "…From the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor until 1 September, 6,800 enemy aliens were apprehended in the United States and half of them have either been paroled or released."[19]
  • In October, the 600,000 unnaturalized Italians living in the United States were freed from the stigma of being alien enemies. The plan was approved by President Roosevelt and many restrictions were lifted. Members of the Italian community could now travel freely, own cameras and firearms, and were not required to carry ID cards.[20]
  • Italy's surrender on September 8, 1943 brought about the release of most of the Italian American internees by year's end. Some had been paroled months after "exoneration" by a second hearing board appealed for by their families. Nonetheless, most of the men had spent two years as prisoners, moving from camp to camp every three to four months.[12]

Attorney General's Report on Wartime Restrictions[edit]

On November 7, 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act.(Pub.L. 106–451, 114 Stat. 1947) This law, in part, directed the U.S. Attorney General to conduct a comprehensive review of the treatment by the U.S. Government of Italian Americans during World War II and to report on its findings within a year. The Attorney General submitted this report, A Review of the Restrictions on Persons of Italian Ancestry During World War II, to the U.S. Congress on November 7, 2001 and the House Judiciary Committee released the report to the public on November 27, 2001.[21] The report, covering the period September 1, 1939, to December 31, 1945, describes the authority under which the United States undertook enforcement of wartime restrictions on Italian Americans and detailed these restrictions. In addition, the report provides 11 lists, most of which include the names of those most directly affected by the wartime restrictions.[22] The lists include:

  1. the names of 74 persons of Italian ancestry taken into custody in the initial roundup following the attack on Pearl Harbor and prior to the United States declaration of war against Italy,
  2. the names of 1,881 other persons of Italian ancestry who were taken into custody,
  3. the names and locations of 418 persons of Italian ancestry who were interned,
  4. the names of 47 persons of Italian ancestry ordered to move from designated areas under the Individual Exclusion Program or, and an additional 12 who appeared before the Individual Exclusion Board, though it unknown if an exclusion order was issued,
  5. the names of 56 persons of Italian ancestry not subject to individual exclusion orders who were ordered to temporarily move from designated areas,
  6. the names of 442 persons of Italian ancestry arrested for curfew, contraband, or other violations,
  7. a list of 33 ports from which fishermen of Italian ancestry were restricted,
  8. names of 315 fishermen of Italian ancestry who were prevented from fishing in prohibited zones,
  9. the names of 2 persons of Italian ancestry whose boats were confiscated,
  10. a list of 12 railroad workers of Italian ancestry prevented from working in prohibited zones, of whom only 4 are named, and
  11. a list of 6 wartime restrictions on persons of Italian ancestry resulting specifically from Executive Order 9066.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Italian Americans working to keep story of WWII mistreatment alive". Philadelphia Inquirer. 7 November 1999. p. C1. 
  2. ^ Brooke, James (August 11, 1997). "An Official Apology Is Sought From U.S.". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ Chawkins, Steve (August 23, 2010). "State apologizes for mistreatment of Italian residents during WWII". Los Angeles Times. 
  4. ^ (50 U.S.C. § 21) (1940)
  5. ^ cited in Brandon
  6. ^ Harris, citing Alan Cranston, "Enemy Aliens" (1942) II, Common Ground (No. 2) III.
  7. ^ see note 1
  8. ^ EXECUTIVE ORDER NO. 9102, March 18, 1942 7 F.R. 2165
  9. ^ Harris. Footnote, p. 1362
  10. ^ Semiannual Report of the War Relocation Authority, for the period January 1 to June 30, 1946, not dated. Papers of Dillon S. Myer.
  11. ^ "The War Relocation Authority and The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II: 1948 Chronology",
  12. ^ a b c Di Stasi
  13. ^ New York Times, December 31, 1941.
  14. ^ New York Times, January 4, 1942.
  15. ^ New York Times, January 11, 1942.
  16. ^ New York Times January 31, 1942.
  17. ^ New York Times, February 1, 1942.
  18. ^ New York Times, February 22, 1942
  19. ^ New York Times, September 23, 1942.
  20. ^ New York Times, October 13, 1942.
  21. ^ [1].
  22. ^ U.S. Department of Justice, Report to the Congress of the United States: A Review of the Restrictions on Persons of Italian Ancestry During World War II, Washington, D.C.: 2001, appendices C.1 through K.


  • Brandon, Michael (April 1950). "Legal Control Over Resident Enemy Aliens in Time of War in the United States and in the United Kingdom". The American Journal of International Law 44 (2): 382–387. ISSN 0002-9300. 
  • Di Stasi, Lawrence (2004). Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II. Berkeley: Heyday Books. ISBN 1-890771-40-6. 
  • Hacker, Doug (June 2001). "Aliens in Montana". American History Illustrated (Cowles History Group): 32–36. 
  • Harris, Charles W. (October 1965). "The Alien Enemy Hearing Board as a Judicial Device as a Judicial Device in the United States during World War II". The International and Comparative Law Quarterly 14 (4): 1360–1370. doi:10.1093/iclqaj/14.4.1360. ISSN 0020-5893. 
  • U.S. Department of Justice (November 2001), Report to the Congress of the United States: A Review of the Restrictions on Persons of Italian Ancestry During World War II, Washington, D.C. 

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