President Obama’s changes to the immigration status of millions of illegal immigrants has caused the expected firestorm of controversy. I have previously criticized the decision to withhold the details of the plan until after voters went to the polls and I continue to view the changes as an assault upon the doctrine of separation of powers. While I have always recognized the wide latitude given to presidents in the past in prioritizing enforcement, this is an open circumvention of Congress to achieve by executive fiat what was denied in legislation. However, I have also been thinking about the families themselves and my own family’s history in coming to this country. Many Americans are finding themselves taking journeys of their own — retracing the often harrowing steps of their ancestors in coming to this country in looking for a better life.
With the release of the President’s new immigration measures, much of the national debate has focused on the constitutional implications of a president unilaterally ordering such sweeping changes. For the millions of immigrants, the new legal status means a new home and future. For those looking to the future, the immediate past is often a place to escape from; a prior identity shed at great cost and effort. However, that is likely to change as it has for so many American families when descendants find returning to the past is the only way to fully understand their own identity. That is a voyage that I took last month to retrace the steps of two people who came in the last massive immigration wave at the turn of the twentieth century. My journey took me to a small village on a mountain in Sicily. It took me to Cianciana.
My grandparents — Dominico Piazza and Josephine Moscato — came to this country from Sicily when the Statue of Liberty was still a relatively new addition to the New York harbor. They saw that statue from the decks of different wooden ships.
Finding answers about Cianciana proved a bit more perilous than a spin on ancestry.com. The roads in the Agrigento Province were built for carts so that two cars barely fit and the series of switchbacks leave you with what seems the choice between a front-end collision or a dive hundreds of feet off a cliff. The burning of fields being cleared adds a menacing smell and glow to trip. Then suddenly Cianciana appears like a time capsule with terracotta roofs and stone houses nestled into the side of the mountain.
First settled in 1269 and then rebuilt after an earthquake in 1646. The village remains much as it has always been. At night, the streets become full of people chatting for hours. Old men gather in coffee clutches as smoke waifs down the main street from the roasting of chestnuts. Children have the run of the town – scurrying around in packs into restaurants and stores.
Walking down the main street, I was called over by a group of old men who heard that my grandfather was named Dominico Piazza. They then proudly produced an elderly man, Dominico Piazza. While we could not confirm concretely that he was relative, he bore a striking resemblance to my grandfather. We were surrounded by men probing for other names from my family like Moscato and La Corte. In the end, it really did not matter. To them, a Ciancianese had returned home. Home. It meant something different here. Despite being half Irish and half Sicilian, they viewed this as my home and my return as completely obvious and inevitable.
The response continued wherever we went. A pizza shop owner, Maddalena Chiazza, would not let me pay for our meal when she discovered that I was a “paisan” returning home. Maddalena lived near Toronto, Canada and returned with her family to her father’s village. I asked her why she decided to stay and she looked perplexed by the question – as if I had asked about something incredibly obvious and evident. She simply said “we built this. Of course, we came home.”
It soon becomes clear that Americans return to places like Cianciana for the same reason that their relatives once left them: to find something essential. In the early 1900s, my grandparents came to find a life and escape dire economic conditions. It must have been a journey that was both exciting and terrifying that journey must have been for the families of my grandparents which never ventured beyond the nearest village: first to Palermo and then to New York and ultimately to Ohio.
The voyage back for so many to places like Cianciana is motivated by a similar pull to a distant place for something essential. We sense that part of who we are can only be found where we began. Where our ancestors sought a future in America, we seek a past in the old world.
Over 700 years, the world has changed around it but Cianciana remains the same in its pace and its people. On Sunday, we went to the main church and watched women bring their breads from long cuddura to twisted mafalda to loaves of pane siciliano to baskets of little Rosette rolls. The church smelled heavenly as the local priest blessed the bread laid before the statue of St. Anthony and the women returned home with blessed breads to feed their families.
There is a profound sense of belonging in this place – a feeling that is lost in the transience of modern life. This is their place. We built it, as Maddelena said. “We” is not used in the immediate but the generational sense. It is passed along to children as more than their legacy. It is their identity. This is why, when you come back, they remind you that this is your home; this is where you are from. We are all proud to be Americans, but part of that identity resonates in different lands.
On my last night in Cianciana, I sat with my wife Leslie next to the little fountain in front of the 17th Century Holy Trinity Mother Church where my grandparents were baptized. They found something wonderful in America but they also left something wonderful behind. It was left but not lost.
None of this, of course, offers any answers for the immigration debate. However, for those new seeking to remain in this country, they will discover that they left more behind than misery or poverty. Their descendants may find, as I did, an inexorable pull to these places in search not of a future but a past.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University.