The Center for Migration Studies Archives: a History of Immigration to the United States

The Center for Migration Studies Archives: a History of Immigration to the United States

The Center for Migration Studies (CMS) includes an archive that documents the history of migration to the United States. Initially housed on Staten Island, the CMS Archives are now available by appointment to researchers at the new CMS offices in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where the collections continue to be an important resource for scholars, media and the general public. The collections receive approximately 150 contacts per year, including visits from overseas scholars lasting several months. They have been used for research and scholarship, and to illustrate books, documentaries and websites.

The CMS Archives contain several important collections of organizations devoted to serving and advocating for migrants. The collections on the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) and Catholic Relief Services, obtained from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, offer valuable insight into the services provided by faith-based institutions in assisting refugees and other displaced persons. One of the highlights of the NCWC collections is Baroness Maria von Trapp’s note of thanks, likely to Most Reverend Joseph Francis Rummel, Archbishop of New Orleans from 1935-1964, for his assistance in the resettlement of the von Trapp family.[1] As seen in The Sound of Music, the von Trapp family fled Nazi-occupied Austria. Like many migrants, however, the von Trapp escape involved bureaucratic paperwork, some of which was facilitated by the NCWC.

CMS was founded by the Society of Saint Charles-Scalabrinians, which has its roots in Italy and in the care of Italian immigrants to the Americas. For this reason, the CMS Archives contains 102 processed collections documenting the many phases of Italian-American life. These collections include materials from the artist Alfred Crimi, composer Carlo Rossi, entertainer Edouard Miggliaccio, politician Victor Anfuso, scholar Giovanni Schiavo, union leader Luigi Antonini, World War I veteran Alexander Pisciotto, as well as items from S. Eugene Scalia, father to United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The archives also host the records of several Italian-American organizations and Italian-American Roman Catholic parishes, particularly in the northeast and mid-Atlantic from the nineteenth through the twentieth century.

Corporal Alexander Pisciotta brought his camera when he joined the U.S. Army in France in World War I, filming a Howitzer-crew's-eye-view of the war.

Corporal Alexander Pisciotta brought his camera when he joined the U.S. Army in France in World War I, filming a Howitzer-crew’s-eye-view of the war.

 Comic sketch artist Eduoardo MIgliaccio wrote and performed this song about the greenhorn immigrant awed and a bit intimidated by American girls.

Comic sketch artist Eduoardo Migliaccio wrote and performed this song about the greenhorn immigrant awed and a bit intimidated by American girls.














The CMS Archives also include annual reports from the Saint Raphael Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants, which was active on Ellis Island from its founding in 1891 until its closure in 1922. Many images of immigrants on Ellis Island exist, but they are often captioned “immigrants on Ellis Island” without further detail. The 1912 annual report of the Italian Saint Raphael Society, however, fully documents the story of Argene Genovese del Carlo. Mrs. del Carlo had departed to England, married her fiancé Sebastiano del Carlo, and returned with him to America, aboard the Titanic.[2] Mr. del Carlo perished when the ship sank, but Mrs. Del Carlo survived, arriving to the United States knowing no one and with no means of support. The Italian Saint Raphael Society arranged for her repatriation.

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The collections also host the Saint Raphael Society for the Protection of German Catholic Immigrants, an organization founded in 1871 and still active. For approximately its first sixty years, the German San Raphael Society advised and provided practical help to German Catholics who were relocating. After the passage of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, the German government defined several people as “non-Aryan” and, therefore, unworthy of the protection of the German state. German Catholics affected by the laws turned to the Catholic Church for help. The German bishops, assembled in their national conference, issued a call for assistance in finding these people refuge overseas. The German Saint Raphael Society was the mechanism for organizing the refugee movement. In a letter to Archbishop Rummel to establish contact, Father Max Groesser, Director of the Saint Raphael Society for the Protection of German Catholic Immigrants from 1921 to 1940, included a copy of the German bishops’ statement.  Father Groesser then traveled to the United States to investigate U.S. immigration laws and procedures and inquire about other migration opportunities. Unfortunately, when Father Groesser returned to Germany, the Gestapo immediately detained him, holding him from the fall of 1937 to the spring of 1938. After his release, Father Groesser traveled to the Brazilian embassy in Berlin in 1940 to learn how to assist those planning to migrate. He eventually died in Berlin under questionable circumstances, and his story survives only in the documents held by the CMS Archives.

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Among the other records that document community efforts to influence law and policy are the collections from the American Committee for Italian Migration (ACIM). In 1952, the United States Congress failed to overturn race-based immigration quotas dating from the 1920’s. The Italian-American community organized to protest the failure and persuade Congress to amend the immigration quotas at its next opportunity, creating ACIM to do so. ACIM had three functions: (1) To provide direct assistance to Italian immigrants, including the handling of American and/or Italian government paperwork for immigration, Social Security, veterans’ benefits, and, after the laws were passed, Medicare; (2) To monitor and interact with Congress by studying the bills introduced and lobbying for reform; and (3) To coordinate grassroots organizing. Through its efforts, ACIM influenced the passage of the 1965 immigration reforms and in keeping the brothers-and-sisters preference in place in the 1986 reforms.

ACIM’s female members played a central role in the organization’s lobbying work. Funded by the ACIM, members and associates formed into geographically-based “chapters” hosting luncheons, dinners, dances and fashion shows.[3]

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Kept informed by ACIM’s publication, The Dispatch, these women wrote their representatives and traveled to Washington DC for conferences and meetings with government officials who could influence US immigration policy. In one illustrious meeting on October 12, 1963, about one month before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy met with ACIM’s members and promised to send proposals to Congress. The ACIM also considered the transnational aspects of migration. During the years they did not travel to Washington, they traveled to Rome to monitor and evaluate Italy’s activities regarding the Italian Diaspora.

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Lastly, the CMS Archives holds collections from the Italian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Pompeii. On March 25, 1911, 146 people, mostly Italian and Jewish girls, perished in a fire in a building that still stands at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in New York City. Considered one of New York’s most significant historical events, the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, greatly impacted the local community. Our Lady of Pompeii, which was within walking distance, lost parishioners to the fire. In their honor, the Church listed the names of the dead in Mass Books and held memorial services. One ceremony which was open to people outside of the Church community was attended by the New York Times. The Times reporter recorded the event in which the preacher stood, immobilized and speechless, in the old-fashioned high pulpit while the congregation of 800 burst repeatedly into tears.

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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire also became a rallying point for labor unions to organize workers and campaign for better conditions. Politicians such as Al Smith responded by advocating for improved labor laws at the state level and politician Robert Wagner and government worker Frances Perkins applied the lessons learned from the disaster to build the foundation for the New Deal. In addition to being a political story and a labor story, the tragedy was also a story of an immigrant church.

CMS will host an open house to view the archive collections at 3:00pm on Monday, September 29, 2014 at CMS offices (307 East 60th Street, 3rd Floor, New York). To schedule an appointment to access the CMS archives at another time, please contact [email protected].


[1] Maria von Trapp to “Very Rev. Archbishop,” Merion, Pennsylvania, August 27, 1942,” CMS.023B, Box 159, folder 5138.

[2] Società San Raffaele per gl’Immigranti italiani. (New York, 1912), 15-16.  CMS.005, Box 6, 1912 folder.

[3] CMS.001A, Box 73, Folder 737.