‘YOU WALKED RIGHT IN’ ‘Illegal’ and ‘Undocumented’ Irish immigrants in historical reality

By Peter F. Stevens
BIR Staff

When it comes to the immigrants of yesteryear – especially Irish immigrants to America’s shores –historical distortions and outright lies abound. A huge number of Irish Americans refuse to accept any comparisons between their sacred ancestors from the old sod and the undocumented immigrants of today. Today’s Nativists hurl the argument that in the grim years of the Potato Famine, the waves of Irish streaming into America from “coffin ships” or across the Canadian border were not ever officially branded “illegal immigrants.”

On the surface, the assertion is accurate. The term “illegal immigrant” did not exist in the American lexicon of the 19th Century. Back in 2014, the Boston Globe’s Johanna Weiss’s column posed the question about the phrase to Mae Ngai, a Columbia University historian and expert on immigration. Ngai replied, “People are shocked when I say before World War I, there were no green cards, no visas, no quotas, no passports, even. Really, you just showed up. And if you could walk without a limp, and you had $30 in your pocket, you walked right in.”

“You walked right in” – Does that sound familiar from the Trumpian playbook? Any of us whose pre-World War I ancestors fled famine, oppression, and outright persecution from Ireland and other corners of Europe may well have simply “walked right in” to America. The borders were wide open, so to speak.

No one in his or her right mind believes that the US in 2018 should not have border security and comprehensive immigration reform. If anyone, however, truly believes that the Great Wall of Trump will rise across thousands of miles of our southern border, he or she is either benighted by hate or willingly foolish.

Back to our own Irish and European ancestors who “walked right in.” They arrived without documents. They faced no quota system and no immigration courts or law enforcement. Like it or not, our pre-war ancestors came to “the Golden Door of America” undocumented. In Boston during the mass immigration of the Great Famine era, about the only thing preventing the Irish from getting in was if they were quarantined at Deer Island due to disease. They did not have to deal with paperwork issues, quotas, or immigration courts.

“That was then, this is now!” President Trump and his fellow Nativists bleat today as they profess that they want only the “right kind” of immigrants. That’s where historical reality shreds the modern Nativists’ arguments and exposes either their bigotry or willing ignorance. The waves of Irish, Germans, Italians, and Eastern Europeans who came to America from the onset of the Great Famine into the early 20th century encountered the same prejudice and contempt that immigrants from Mexico, Central and Latin America, Haiti, Africa, and so many other places face today.

Our Irish American forebears—particularly the immigrants of the 1840s and 1850s—were in many ways as reviled by “real Americans” as the Mexicans, the Muslims, and the “dangerous immigrants” who have fueled the hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump and many of his allies and acolytes. The Irish – again, undocumented Irish – of the mid-19th Century in Massachusetts were “the other” when Nativists mounted their most serious previous attempt to seize the presidency. In the spring of 1854, they carried elections in Boston, Salem, and other cities. With the fall Massachusetts legislative and gubernatorial races looming, the Nativists, or Know-Nothings, had their collective eyes on higher office, where they could enact laws targeting foreigners and Catholics. Across the nation, the movement’s ranks swelled to over a million in 1854, their confidence leading them to anoint themselves the “American Party.”

What they knew all too well was that they loathed anything Irish, anything Catholic, any immigrant except the right kind, anything they deemed “un-American.” They proclaimed that they needed to save the nation from going broke to pay for “Paddy and Bridget,” who were arriving in unprecedented waves. Anyone who was not a native-born, Anglo-Protestant was not a real American, but a threat to them. Again, the outsider, the other. In short, the Nativists “wanted their country back.” Today, the phrase has an all-too-familiar ring.

In the 1856 presidential election, the American Party ran former President Millard Fillmore. The party teemed with the haters and the disaffected of the era, and they believed the White House was theirs for the taking.

While many Boston voters cast their ballots for the former president, he captured but one state, Maryland. The onset of the Civil War would shove the Nativists, or Know-Nothings, into history’s backwaters. Still, prejudice toward immigrants would endure, but along the way it galvanized the Boston Irish to do what the Know-Nothings had done: seize power through the ballot box. The Irish proved far better at holding onto that clout than had the Know-Nothings.

That is why today’s Irish Americans should think long and hard, and remember their own families’ history as the debate over borders, quotas, security, and DACA blazes. We do have to control our borders, but do so with sensible and humane – not hateful – immigration policy.

As the adage preaches, we ignore the past at our peril. This month, as we celebrate all things Irish on the 17th, one would vainly hope, it seems, that President Trump, his chief of staff, John Kelly (of course, that could end any day now), House Speaker Paul Ryan, and others across the nation might actually think back to last March, when former Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny reminded the President that “St. Patrick was an immigrant.”