The Irish: the illegal immigrants of yesteryear

Today tens of millions of Americans will don a green tie, four-leaf clover earrings, or perhaps drink a green-colored beer while wearing a “Kiss me, I’m Irish” shirt — even if they aren’t Irish.

St. Patrick’s Day is not an Irish holiday. It is an American holiday. However, it was not always so acceptable to celebrate Irish heritage in America. Many Americans of Irish decent know from family stories how their immigrant forefathers were routinely demonized as dirty, job-stealing, poor, uneducated, low-skilled, uninvited invaders who were going to ruin America.

Historian Kevin Kenny sums it up:

The Irish immigrants were mostly unskilled, worked for low wages . . . Native-born workers worried that their own wages would decline . . . Many Americans also feared that the Irish would never advance socially but would instead become the first permanent working class in the United States, threatening the central principle of 19th-century American life: upward social mobility through hard work.

Sound familiar?

The Advertiser newspaper in Boston wrote of the Irish as “import[ing] their vile propensities and habits from across the water” and referred to children of immigrants (“anchor babies,” if you will) as “wretched offspring.”

The Chicago Post editorialized:

“The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses . . . Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country.”

At my Catholic undergraduate alma mater, classmates told me about their Irish grandfathers admonishing them never to vote Republican, because Democrats were the ones who helped Irish immigrants get jobs, find homes, start businesses — pursue the American Dream. Republicans disliked their very presence.

It took 150 years for Republicans to win the Catholic vote, in large part because the verbal attacks on immigrants cited religion. To this day, certain historical hubs of Irish immigration like those in the Northeast remain challenging territory for Republican candidates.

Fellow conservatives justifiably talk about America as the greatest country on earth, and yet some take offense when people beyond our borders believe that claim strongly enough to take great risks to become a part of America.

The hardships endured to pursue freedom and opportunity cannot be overstated. Another historian describes the typical journey:

Those Irish who were able to scrape up fare for other voyages traveled to the New World in cramped, filthy, disease-infested ships; in many cases conditions were as bad about ship as they were in the ravaged country they left behind. The vessels that carried these desperate travelers to British North America (Canada), New York, and Boston were labeled famine ships by some observers. Others referred to them, chillingly, as coffin ships.

Survivors of the trek were lucky to arrive in a country that essentially had what some derisively call “open borders.” With minimal processing, immigrants were on their way.

But what if that were not the case? What if the system was as bureaucratic then as it is now? What if the masses of desperate travelers had docked in Boston harbor, and were forced to stare at the Promised Land a stone’s throw away, only to find that the legal immigration process was a hopeless mess of red tape?