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As Irish America celebrates it should spare a thought for more recent arrivals

Many Americans see immigration of today as somehow less legitimate than immigration of the past

United States Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, holds up a pint of Guinness as he proposes a toast during the Friends of Ireland luncheon at the United States Capitol March 15, 2018 in Washington, DC. . The Taoiseach is visiting as part of the traditional St Patrick’s Day celebrations (Photo by Alex Edelman-Pool/Getty Images)

In the 1850s, an American political party called the Know Nothing Party began to gain significant clout. Its main platform was to rid America of Catholic influences. At the time, Catholics were predominantly Irish and German, usually immigrants and their descendants.

Irish Americans were particularly concerned by the rise of this nativist faction, recalling the anti-Catholic oppression they felt back in Ireland. The Know Nothing Party did not last in politics for long, eventually falling apart due to an intra-party debate on slavery, but during its tenure it did manage to gain brief footholds in a number of state legislatures, such as Pennsylvania’s, New York’s, and Massachusetts’s.

During the time Know Nothing politicians had power, they targeted Irish American civil rights and tried to remove any Irish Catholics from positions of authority. The party also petitioned Congress to raise the naturalization waiting period to 21 years; this was quite a difference from the five-year waiting period then in law. The goal was not deportation, at least not at first, but to prevent Catholics from being able to vote, thus preventing them from changing the dynamic of America.

The Know Nothing Party was unabashedly nativist, even referring to itself as the American Party and, briefly, the Native American Party. Members had no problem vocalizing their beliefs that the Irish were sexually immoral, prone to violence, drunks, and intent on changing America’s culture because of their allegiance to the pope. A popular slogan of the party was “Americans must rule America!” In short: the more Irish you allowed in, the worse America will become. And those who are already in? Sideline them as much as possible lest you see the country irrevocably changed.

If this hateful rhetoric sounds familiar, then it’s probably because you have heard similar noise from anti-immigration politicians in the United States today. The main difference is that Irish Americans are no longer the main target. Instead, Americans who are not white have ended up in the crosshairs, and the oppression they face outdoes what the bigoted Know Nothing Party pushed for against Irish Americans in the 1850s.

As Irish Americans like myself prepare to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, it would behoove us to consider the threats that current immigrants are facing and how many of these threats mirror the bigotry thrown at our ancestors. “Americans must rule America!” is not too far from “Make America Great Again” nor is the Know Nothing Party’s stances too dissimilar from Donald Trump’s brand of politics. But the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, goes far beyond what the Know Nothing Party was able to accomplish.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has gone into overdrive under Donald Trump (and it was already proving to be overzealous under Barack Obama). One of the most striking recent examples was the arrest of Syed Ahmed Jamal, a chemistry professor from Kansas who was arrested on his front lawn. He had been in America for over thirty years when ICE scooped him up. He is still fighting for the right to remain in the country he calls his home. His case is sadly not unique nor is it even the most disturbing.

The Intercept reported that ICE held 92 shackled Somalis on a plane for 40 hours, forcing some of them to urinate on themselves. ICE officers allegedly threw racial slurs at them, as well. (ICE has disputed The Intercept’s report). In another remarkable incident, the mayor of Oakland, Libby Schaaf, was so concerned about ICE’s behavior that she warned her constituents of a raid planned by ICE. In fact, ICE has been so ruthless that some undocumented immigrants are terrified of reporting domestic violence for fear that, instead of seeing their abuser punished, they will instead be deported.

The nativist streak is by no means limited to ICE and Donald Trump. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in February that undocumented immigrants can be held indefinitely while awaiting deportation. While this should be considered a human rights violation on its own, it becomes doubly horrific when one considers the wretched conditions of prisons in the United States. That a nation of immigrants is allowing this to happen is obscene, yet many Americans see immigration of today as somehow less legitimate than immigration of the past. This is a mistake.

A common rebuke of the argument that immigrants of today deserve the respect we wish our ancestors had is that the people being punished today are “illegal,” unlike our ancestors. For instance, one might argue that the Irish who faced persecution in the 1850s arrived legally, while undocumented immigrants of today are breaking the law and thus do not deserve the same sympathy we give to our ancestors.

This argument falls apart for a few reasons. One, just because someone breaks the law does not mean they deserve to be treated as subhuman. Two, many Irish did and still do come to the United States illegally. There are currently at least 10,000 undocumented Irish in the United States. Three, the laws surrounding immigration in the 1800s were vastly different than today’s. The idea of having a green card or a waiting list was non-existent. Irish Americans could, in most cases, enter America without extensive restrictions. Had current immigration laws been around when the Irish came to America, fleeing the effects of the potato famine, the vibrant Irish American culture currently found in the US may never have existed in the first place.

When we celebrate Irish American pride in the United States on St. Patrick’s Day, we should also take the time to show solidarity for those who wish to accomplish what our ancestors did but are being cruelly abused by an administration hellbent on curbing immigration. If we don’t, if we are willing to look the other way, or, worse, scoff at those trying so desperately to make a life for themselves here, then what exactly is the value behind the culture that we are celebrating?

Donald McCarthy is a writer from New York. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in books, magazines, and even a podcast. A complete list of his works can be found at