Fintan O’Toole: We are undocumented but they are illegal

There is tacit racism in the appeal to Trump to make Irish migrants a special case

When are immigrants illegal and when are they undocumented? Answer: they are undocumented when they are Irish and illegal otherwise.

This is a crude generalisation. But if we take speeches in the Dáil and Seanad as a sample of official discourse, “illegal Irish” has been used 120 times and “undocumented Irish” 491 times – more than four times as often.

Journalists tend to call anyone in Ireland without the proper papers an "illegal immigrant" while an Irish person in exactly the same situation in the United States is "undocumented". Most of this is unconscious – but then racial prejudice usually is. And in the current climate we must honestly acknowledge that there is a tacit appeal to racial prejudice in the way we talk about this whole subject – and in the way the Taoiseach may well talk about it when he meets Donald Trump in the White House for St Patrick's Day.

This use of language has always mattered because it exposes a double standard. The 50,000 or so “undocumented Irish” in the US are human beings. They have lives and families and friends. They phone home and our hearts lift at the sound of their voices. They work hard. They contribute to the economy and society. So what if they entered the US on a tourist visa or a student exchange and just forgot to leave? What harm are they doing anybody? They are Us. But all those other millions of shadow people? They are Them. At best, they are anonymous, interchangeable figures, seen out of the corner of the eye as they pick up leaves in a suburban garden, push trollies down hotel corridors, or gather our dirty dishes in diners. At worst, they are “bad hombres”.



This hypocrisy has long been at work in Ireland: the same politicians who weep for the plight of the "undocumented Irish" in the US like to talk tough about "illegal immigrants" violating the sanctity of our own borders. But it also operates in the US. It was best exemplified during the primary elections last year, when the egregious Bill O'Reilly of Fox News questioned Ted Cruz, then still very much in the running, about the plans he and Trump were putting forward to round up and deport "illegal immigrants".

The hard case O’Reilly chose to put Cruz on the spot was not a fictional María Contreras or Fareed Zakaria. It was an imagined Tommy O’Malley: “So Tommy O’Malley from Co Cork in Ireland is over here and he overstays his visa and he has got a couple of kids and he has settled into Long Island, and you, President Cruz, are going to send the Feds to his house, take him out and put him on a plane back to Ireland?”

This exchange was telling: deporting Tommy O’Malley back to Cork is obviously much more troubling than deporting María Contreras back to Cancun. And why should that be? Let’s not kid ourselves, we all know the answer: Tommy is “white” and María isn’t.

Irish politicians have always done their share of dog-whistling: the undocumented Irish deserve special treatment because, well, we share a lot of "culture" and "history". Nobody mentioned race because nobody had to. But we have to mention it now because it is no longer a subtle and silent presence. The dog whistle has been replaced on the political soundtrack by brazen, blaring trumpets. Undocumented migration is being racialised and criminalised. Trump has been relentless in associating it with brown people (Mexicans and Muslims) and with violent criminality. And the key architects and enablers of this policy are Irish-Americans: Trump's advisers Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway (née Fitzgerald), spokesman Sean Spicer and homeland security secretary John Kelly.

Toxic duality

How can these products of mass migration justify to themselves a campaign of terror against migrant communities? By holding in their heads a toxic duality: white Irish migrants good; brown Mexican or Muslim migrants bad. Or, as the euphemisms go, undocumented Tommy O’Malley okay; illegal María Contreras a threat to our way of life.

As a nation, as human beings, as a society with pretensions to civilised standards, we have to decide: are we playing this game or not? We love ambiguities and we’re very good at exploiting them, but there’s no room for ambiguity anymore.

Enda Kenny has repeatedly said he's going to the White House on St Patrick's Day to "stand up for the undocumented Irish" and insist they be given the right to full US citizenship. So is he going to tell Bannon and Conway and Spicer and Kelly to lay off our people because the Irish are also their people: good white Americans? Or is he going to "stand up for the undocumented Irish" by standing up for all of those who share the Irish experience of having to overcome poverty and prejudice in order to make decent lives for our children?

This is a moment of truth about what it means to be Irish in the world. We either wink at a racism that affords most of us the privilege of a white skin. Or we honour the struggles of so many millions of Irish immigrants to be accepted as equal human beings.