The Irish were the first targets of deportation policy in the US

In the 1840s, destitute Irish-Americans were seen as foreign and often sent back to Europe

Demonstrators near the White House protest against the travel ban on seven Muslim countries in January. The law is not the first time national security has been used as an excuse to deport migrants. Photograph: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump's executive order to suspend immigration from a number of predominantly Muslim countries and the recent series of raids on illegal immigrants, many of whom are Latinos, have provoked nationwide protests across the United States. Critics quickly pointed out that these policies are in effect intended to exclude foreigners on religious and racial grounds under the camouflage logics of national security and the protection of the American economy.

While it is well known that Catholic Irish immigrants in the 19th century suffered bigotry of similar kinds, Irish American history has an even more direct connection to the current debate over immigration policy than many people might think.

In American history, there has been a myth that immigration to the United States was free from regulation until the introduction in the late 19th century of federal laws to restrict Chinese immigration. In fact, eastern states, especially Massachusetts and New York, developed extensive systems of state-level immigration control in response to Irish Famine immigration. Long before the federal government launched Chinese exclusion, these states refused admission to the destitute Irish and deported them to Europe as government policy. The Irish were indeed the first targets of institutionalised immigration control in the United States.

English colonists

The legal origins of American immigration control dated back to the colonial period. Based on the model of the English poor law, which allowed each parish to banish transient beggars, English colonists developed similar practices to regulate the movement of the poor. When the famine Irish arrived in the United States during the 1840s, nativists in Massachusetts and New York built upon the colonial poor laws to develop laws for restricting the landing of destitute foreigners and deporting immigrant paupers back to Europe. Throughout the era of state-level immigration control between the 1840s and 1880s, the Irish remained principal targets for these measures.


Strong antagonism toward the poverty and dependency of the Irish lay at the core of immigration control in Massachusetts and New York. Just like nativists today – who believe in promoting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants – those in the 19th century framed immigration control as a matter of national security.

They believed that the Catholic Irish attempted to overturn American Protestant and democratic society with despotic "papism," and they viewed the poverty of the famine Irish as an equally dangerous economic and public health threat. In 1855, nativists called Irish immigrants receiving public relief "leeches upon our tax payers". The anti-Irish newspaper Boston Daily Bee asserted that "most of the danger" to public health "springs from the foul and disgusting habits of the Irish population". Thomas Whitney, a New York nativist, declared that foreign paupers were "a disease, both moral and physical – a leprosy – a contamination".

Illegal entry

The strict construction of deportability characterised state immigration law. Today, illegal entry – violation of laws administering admission – makes foreigners deportable. Nineteenth-century Massachusetts law defined deportability on the basis of legal settlement –a symbol of membership in the state. One could acquire legal settlement by residing in the state for a certain period of time, and the law made deportable anybody seeking public relief without settlement in Massachusetts.

What is striking about this law is that only American citizens could acquire legal settlement. In other words, however long they might have resided in the state and whatever contributions they might have made to the community, non-naturalised immigrants were permanently ineligible for settlement. And without it, they could instantly become deportable upon entering a public almshouse. Under this arrangement, some Irish immigrants were deported to Ireland even after having spent four decades in the United States.

When intense nativism and strict law came together, the result was the aggressive and inhumane enforcement of deportation, which often led to tragic consequences. Nativist officials raided almshouses and lunatic hospitals, virtually kidnapping Irish-born inmates and patients for immediate expulsion. On one occasion, officials went so far as to place the children of destitute Irish immigrants on board a Liverpool-bound ship even after the parents ran way.

Abandoned deportees

Moreover, upon arrival in Ireland or Britain, American officials routinely abandoned deportees on the streets without basic provisions for self-support, such as food, clothes, and money. In 1859, a local official in Liverpool, who had witnessed the landing of 16 Irish deportees “in a state of extreme destitution,” remarked that he “never saw a more miserable lot of people”. Debilitated during the transatlantic voyage, some deportees died soon after their return to Europe.

Nativist officials also had little hesitation to illegally expel the indigent Irish by disregarding procedural requirements for removal. Opponents of deportation condemned these officials for forcibly sending human beings across the Atlantic with less recorded authorization “than goes to the sending of a tub of butter, or a barrel of apples, from Fitchburg to Boston”.

Unlawfully banished people included some Irish-American citizens, such as native-born children and naturalised immigrants. Massachusetts law provided that any foreign pauper could be sent to “any place beyond [the] sea, where he belongs”.

In the eyes of nativist officers, destitute Irish-Americans were foreign and belonged to Ireland, rather than the United States. Irish-Americans criticised citizen deportation as “vile tyranny,” but nativists justified it as a necessary and sound measure to reduce the burden of “the lazy, ungrateful, lying and thieving population of old Ireland”. For them, “the more vigorously this [deportation] law is executed the better it will be”.

Poverty, indeed, was a crime punishable with expulsion in 19th-century America, and intense ethnic prejudice rendered the Irish rightless and most vulnerable to the deportation policy. Left in the hands of hostile officers, the policy easily lost legal fairness and integrity in its practical implementation.

The coercive and illegal enforcement of deportation law against the Irish should be taken as a reminder of the danger of immigration policy driven by hate and intolerance.

Sentimental nativists today insist that illegal immigrants hurt the American economy, but social scientific studies have proved their overall positive contributions to the economy. The Trump administration’s present policy to crack down on illegal immigrants is nothing but the manifestation of its commitment to racism against Latinos. The painful history of Irish deportation underscores the pressing necessity of rational and humane immigration policy in this time of radical nativism.

Hidetaka Hirota teaches American immigration history at the City University of New York-City College. The essay is taken from his recent publication, Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy (Oxford University Press, 2017), and was also published in the most recent edition o f the Irish Echo.