Immigrant vilification has a history

Thursday, March 28, 2019
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I am writing this on St. Patrick’s Day, the celebration of Irish culture enjoyed by all Americans no matter their ethnic heritage. This is worth thinking about because when the Irish came to America they were vilified, just as are millions of Hispanic immigrants today.

The Irish even entered America legally. They couldn’t much help it; there were no national immigration laws until the 1880s, when legislation was passed limiting the number of Chinese who could come here. Individual states did pass laws controlling entry into their borders, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1876 that only the federal government could control foreign commerce. There were, of course, laws governing who could become and American citizen, and how, but none governing who could enter the nation.

Early Irish immigration began in the 1820s to fill the labor pool needed to build the Erie Canal among many other labor-intensive projects. This need for laborers would be repeated with the Chinese for construction of Western railroads the 1860s and the Mexicans who filled the need for farm laborers (the bracero program) during World War II. But the major Irish immigration began in earnest during the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, fueled by hunger and political repression.

The gift of America to the world, the potato, was the staple food of the Irish – in fact, almost the only food. In 1845, a blight began that demolished the potato crop throughout the island for five years. There was no help from anywhere, let alone the British government, which ruled the Irish with an animosity bordering on contempt. Thirteen percent of the Irish people died of starvation and disease.

Given a choice of dying of starvation or dying on a ship headed to America, the Irish crammed themselves into “coffin” ships, where each person was allotted a space for the passage 18 inches wide. The voyage took at least a month and the 75 percent who didn’t die were disgorged on American shores with no money, no food, no friends; in fact, with little else than hope.

They were not made welcome. They were portrayed with what was to become the boilerplate language of American xenophobia; they were thieves and rapists, not to mention drunks. They would take jobs from hardworking Americans, were mentally inferior to monkeys, and worst of all, they worshipped a religion that was much mistrusted in America then and for years to come; they were Catholic and were suspected of plotting the takeover of America by the Pope. They were the target of the KKK and other “patriotic” groups.

An entire political party emerged whose single platform was to destroy whatever influence the Irish had. Naturally, it was called the American Party, but was more popularly called the “Know Nothing Party” by its members. It ran the governments of several East Coast cities and states.

Things eventually changed for the better for the Irish, but slowly. As late as 1960, there was great concern that John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism would lead to a political takeover by the Roman Catholic Church. Addressing that, Kennedy made clear to a special convention of Protestant Ministers of Houston, Texas that, “I am not the Catholic candidate for President…I am the Democratic candidate.”

“They will change the culture of America!”

“They are beggars, thieves, bandits and much worse.”

It did not much matter whether their skins were white or tawny, whether from Ireland, Poland, Italy or Greece. They were all the spawn of the devil. It did not matter why they came here or what they were fleeing in their native land. It couldn’t matter because they all came here for the same reason; to escape hunger or political terror in their home country, to escape to a chance for a better life, to escape from fear to hope.

Like the Irish immigrants, people do not put themselves and their families in danger for frivolous reasons. However we might feel about immigrants, it would be good to at least keep that in mind.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator, and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.

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