Americans of Irish heritage will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day 2019 in the usual manner: with pride and partying. But as we do, let’s also give pause to remember the significance of our nation’s once-benevolent immigration policy that readily enabled the Irish to travel to America’s shores, a policy that these days seems largely to alienate rather than accommodate.
I immigrated with my parents to the U.S. from Ireland in 1951. This was back in the days when America unhesitatingly welcomed immigrants, long before the president began vilifying southern-border refugees as criminals, gang members and rapists, before he began separating children from their mothers and fathers at points of entry, before he began banning Muslims.
A century earlier than my arrival, in the wake of the Great Famine, Irish immigrants — legal Irish immigrants — were not always welcomed in the U.S. In fact, they were regularly vilified in society at large and the press in particular. Back then, the Irish were often depicted by newspaper cartoonists subhumanly as monkeys, with editorials openly calling with impunity for their immediate deportation. At the time, the Irish occupied the bottom rung of America’s immigration ladder, routinely characterized as lazy, drunken, rowdy overbreeders. Sound familiar? It’s one of the more shameful stereotypical treatments ever inflicted on any ethnic group. Sadly, the characterization continues today, only it’s no longer directed at the Irish.
Nearly a million and a half Irish made the harrowing journey to America in seagoing caravans from 1845 to 1851 seeking, as do most immigrants, opportunity and a better life. They ventured forth on “coffin ships,” scores of them dying along the way. In fact, in the 1840s half of all immigrants to the U.S. were from Ireland. Now, the largest percentage of immigrants hail from Mexico, Latin America, South America, Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries and Asia.
Fortunately, conditions have changed for the Irish and other immigrants over many decades. Much of this change is due to motivated, determined people of varied backgrounds working diligently to counter the harsh discrimination to which they were so horrendously subjected. In the case of the Irish, much of it is also due to a long history of electing sympathetic politicians of the same ethnic background. Today’s diversity of members in the House of Representatives signals, encouragingly, that, for example, Latin and Arab immigrants also profoundly understand and strongly support the power of the ballot. There is no doubt that gaining political influence and fully assimilating into U.S. society spawns opportunities to work within the system for the benefit of one’s own ethnic group.
Maybe the luck of the Irish can rub off on today’s immigrants to America fleeing crime, persecution and dire economic conditions, no matter their country of origin. As Bobby Kennedy — the grandson of Irish immigrants — said: “Good luck is something you create.” True, but in America in 2019, it can only be created in a national atmosphere of welcoming acceptance and compassion rather than one of alienating rejection and denigration. If there is to be a lasting political solution to sensible immigration reform, it must begin at the highest levels of government, a prospect that, under our current president, seems less and less likely to be realized by the next St. Patrick’s Day celebration.