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Ray Mariano’s film “Cabrini” teaches a timely lesson about immigration

It’s not the kind of movie I would normally go see. There are no Liam Neeson, Al Pacino or Keanu Reeves. And no one wears a cape dressed like a big bat. But I knew the story of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini and the movie trailer I saw seemed interesting. So one rainy day I took a chance and went to the theater to see ‘Cabrini’. I’m glad I did.

More than once the film made my emotions bubble to the surface. At times I felt anger. At other points in the film I felt tears welling up in my eyes.

Mother Cabrini, born in 1850, repeatedly asked the Pope for permission to go to China to serve the poor. Instead, the Pope sent her and seven other nuns to America to minister to Italian immigrants. When she arrived in New York, she found a destitute immigrant population treated like animals. She encountered roadblocks at every turn because the people she wanted to serve were seen as subhuman, given mean names, and expected to live apart from the good people of the community in conditions barely fit for livestock.

Even the local Catholic Church rebelled against her, simply because the people she served were considered undesirable. But Mother Cabrini was not deterred. By the time of her death, Cabrini and the dedicated group of nuns she led – the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – had established 67 schools, hospitals and orphanages to serve the sick and poor in the United States, Latin America and Europe.

After her death, Mother Cabrini, who had become an American citizen, became the first American citizen to be canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church. Today she is considered the patron saint of immigrants.

The story of immigrants

“Cabrini” is the story of a remarkable woman and the Italian immigrants she served in New York City. As I watched the film, I thought about my grandfather and the stories I had been told about the names he was called: dago, wop, vetbal and worse. It’s a story shared by the fathers and mothers of many of my friends, who can trace their heritage back to Italy.

But it is also the story of immigrants from Ireland, Poland and so many other countries who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search of a better life. They were treated poorly, called vulgar names, mocked and considered undesirable and subhuman.

As I thought about the film, I thought about the way we talk about and treat newcomers to America today.

Yes, I know some people will say that many of today’s immigrants are different because they came to America without proper documentation. I understand the concern. But I would point out that many of the immigrants who came to America before 1917 – Italians, Irish, Poles, Greeks and others – also came without official papers. In fact, the American Jesuit Review theorizes that “Mother Cabrini most likely arrived herself without formal immigration documents.”

The Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, was intended to prevent unwanted persons from immigrating to the United States. The law also formalized the documentation required of immigrants.

Most of the immigrants who built America were considered unwanted when they came here. They were desperately poor, often illiterate, with only the meager possessions. As someone might say today, the countries they came from “didn’t send their best.”

When our ancestors came to America, politicians and some journalists stereotyped them as inferior and out to steal American jobs. They were seen as criminals. Sounds familiar?

But a closer look reveals a different picture. The U.S. Department of Justice compared the crime of undocumented immigrants to native American citizens. Their current findings show that U.S. citizens are more than two times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, two and a half times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and more than four times more likely to be arrested for property crimes than unauthorized immigrants . Other studies produced similar results.

This column was not written to justify the crisis at our country’s southern border. Almost everyone is forced to admit that the border is a mess and that we need to get it under control. And I’m not writing to suggest that we should just open our border and let everyone in. But the crisis at the border is no excuse for the way we talk about those desperate to live here.

The anger I felt watching the movie when I heard the vile names of American leaders and citizens being called Italian immigrants is the anger I feel listening to today’s debate.

The deep sadness I felt watching those poor, desperate people living in squalor in the movie is the sadness I feel today watching immigrants sleep on the sidewalk.

Regardless of what you think about the immigration problems we face in America today, the people who come here in search of a better life are not “animals.” These are people who are desperate for a better life. Certainly, there are some who are criminals and they should be deported immediately. But the vast majority of them came here desperate for a better life.

America was built on the backs of the poorest, the least educated, and the most desperate. Today, some of their descendants torment newcomers with the same shameful language and behavior that their ancestors faced.

If our grandparents and great-grandparents could see and hear us, they would be ashamed of our behavior.

Email Raymond V. Mariano at [email protected]. He served four terms as mayor of Worcester and previously served on the City Council and School Committee. He grew up in Great Brook Valley and earned degrees from Worcester State College and Clark University. He most recently served as executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority. His column appears weekly in the Sunday Telegram. His endorsements do not necessarily reflect the position of Telegram & Gazette.