St. Patrick's Day in Arizona: the Irish, the Mexicans, and the Nativists

There's something particularly obscene about the fact that state Senator Russell Pearce's bigoted, anti-immigrant legislation SB 1070/HB 2632 will be heard today on the House floor, falling, as the date does, on St. Patrick's Day.


Because before nativist hatemongers had Mexican immigrants to kick around, there were the Irish. Fleeing poverty, famine and political persecution, millions of Irish boarded ship in the 1800s for passage to America, many dying in transit -- a direct parallel to the Mexican and Central American immigrants of today, some of whom risk death in the Arizona desert to come to the U.S.
The Pogues' "Thousands Are Sailing": Can someone crank this jam in Russell Pearce's ear?
As a result of this mass migration, by 1850, the Irish made up around 43 percent of the foreign-born population. Today, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, Mexicans make up 30 percent of the country's foreign-born population.


Today's nativists will likely argue that the Irish of the 19th Century were "legal" immigrants rather than "illegal." Technically, they're right, but only if you ignore the fact that America had then what folks today would call an "open borders" policy toward immigration.

If you don't believe me, take a look at the history of immigration legislation at the Web site for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Up until 1875, practically all you had to do was jump off the boat to legally enter this country. 

That is, as long as you weren't a Chinese laborer. Other than this racist prohibition, criminals and prostitutes were barred from entry, but that was about it. And without Internet background checks, discerning who was a "criminal" was likely a dubious proposition. 

Though the Irish could legally flee their homeland for "the Golden Door," they were not exactly welcomed by the Protestant bigots who feared and despised their cheap labor and their Roman Catholicism. 

As a political movement, nativist Know Nothings gained strength by bashing Irish and German Catholics, just as nativists bash Mexicans today. Similarly, the Irish faced discrimination and ethnic slurs. Irish-Americans of not too long ago were able to recall signs that read "No Irish Need Apply." 

(Though I've read treatises suggesting such signs never existed, no one argues that Irish immigrants did not face hostility and bigotry upon arrival in the U.S.)

I'm reminded of that classic song from The Pogues, Thousands Are Sailing, wherein the Irish immigrant experience is sung of with pride. The refrain, as croaked by Shane MacGowan, is particularly trenchant:

Thousands are sailing
Across the western ocean
To a land of opportunity
That some of them will never see
Fortune prevailing
Across the western ocean
Their bellies full
Their spirits free
They'll break the chains of poverty
And they'll dance

On St. Patrick's Day, much of what Americans celebrate is the immigrant experience of the Irish. It's shameful that Arizona nativists must ruin this memory by persecuting another ethnicity, one as demonized now as the Irish were of old.

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