What Yesterday’s Irish Immigrants Tell Us About Today’s Refugees

This week everything around us turns green. We are all proud to be Irish. It is hard to imagine that just over 150 years ago the Irish were refugees disdained for their poverty and their religion. If slavery is the United States’ original sin, the treatment of the Irish is the British’s. Truly past is prologue. Swift’s ‘modest proposal’ could be written today with equal parts sarcasm and horror. We would merely need to insert Muslim refugees or Refugees from our southern border as the main object of the piece. How ironic that now we celebrate the Irish who came here as desperate refugees and we turn our back on our modern plight, which is every bit as real as the ‘great hunger’ as it was called in the 19th century. The same old tired fear-mongering, religious bigotry and xenophobia used to justify punishing the Irish is used today to deny and demonize those in most need.

Approximately 1.5 million Irish immigrated to the United States between 1845 and 1855 forever changing the landscape of this country. Who now looks back on history and thinks we should have denied them from coming? But that’s exactly what we’re doing now to those who need us most. History will look back on this moment as a failure. A failure of morality, courage and human decency. Of the nearly 80 million refugees in the world, half are children. So, for those of us who will wear green and celebrate the Irish, let’s stop a moment and think about what we owe to those impoverished refugees from more than 150 years ago, and what we stand to lose if we don’t live up to our moral obligation to help those that are in such desperation today.

I Was A Stranger…

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Resisting comprehensive immigration reform goes against our Judeo-Christian values, American ideals, and common sense. The United States’ current immigration laws are outdated, cumbersome,inadequate,unjust and in desperate need of reform.

A moral principle 

Leviticus 19: 33-34 And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. 

God’s people have often been “strangers in a strange land”, Jesus himself was a refugee. Every nation has the right to protect their borders, to welcome strangers in on their own terms, but those terms should be framed by our basic beliefs of right and wrong, compassion and human dignity. 

Matthew 25:35: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in.

Luke 12:48 For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: 

I truly believe the United States has been blessed in unparalleled ways: economically, politically and intellectually; in many ways it truly has become what John Winthrop envisioned speaking of a “a city on a hill” Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, and Bush all have used this metaphor. Surely, if we are to be a beacon of hope to the world, we must have an immigration system that meets the demands of the 21st century, coupled with the compassion of the ages. 

Our American ideals

The United States is not a place, it’s an idea—if not so, we would have never grown past our 13 colonies. The audacious, and to many, blasphemous belief that citizens could govern themselves was revolutionary to say the least. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I am not so naive that I don’t know and appreciate that those words where constrained by the bigotries of the 18th century. I also am not so cynical as to not be moved by them, to see their potential and the inspiration they have been to the world. How perfect was France’s centennial gift: “Liberty Enlightening the World.” How fitting the poem that accompanies her:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

We have always, always been a nation of refugees, pilgrims and opportunists seeking a better life. To resist that is to turn our back on our history and our future. 

Common sense

We resist immigrants at our own peril. They have always played a crucial role in our labor force, our infrastructure, growth and productivity. We damage our own economic growth by not fixing our broken immigration system. Opposition to immigration is as old as the republic: Franklin was worried about too many Germans, Adams and the Alien and Sedition Act, the Chinese Exclusionary Act, hostility and violence to Irish and Italian immigration, etc., etc., etc. It always makes the same false claims of safety, jobs, language acquisition, cultural fears, religious worries, the drain on resources and infrastructure–all not new claims, all not true, (see below), yet here we go again. We can and should fix our broken system. We should no longer stand at the border with both a ‘Help Wanted’ and ‘No Trespassing’ sign. We can and should offer a path to citizenship now for those who have over stayed their legal entry and for those who entered illegally. They should be fined, just like we do for those who speed or pay their taxes late, or don’t have proper permits for business, etc. Those who are a threat to society should be removed. No serious person thinks we can or should forcibly remove twelve million individuals. No fair-minded compassionate person would want to. We can do the right thing just as President Reagan and Democrats did thirty years ago: It will require us to revisit our past, be honest with our present, and look to the future. 

Immigration myths debunked