The Irish story of immigration to America started in the second half of the 19th century when Irish peasants fleeing theIn famine were stereotyped as a “sub-class of clannish, bedraggled, no-good drunks who had too many babies.” Working-class Americans resented Irish laborers who drove down wages. Signs stating “No Irish Need Apply” were seen in Boston.
By 1855 it was estimated that one of every three people living in Boston were foreign-born Irish; the city was becoming known as “the Dublin of America.”
In Massachusetts the American Party, (known as the “Know Nothings” because of their secret society beginnings) won a landslide victory in the state election of 1854 on their promise to “purify” American politics by limiting or ending the influence of Irish Catholics and other immigrants.
Once in office they passed a series of laws aimed specifically at the Irish Catholic population. They tried to deprive Roman Catholics of the right to vote and to hold office. The Know Nothing party’s decline was as rapid as its rise. Its candidates suffered overwhelming defeat in the presidential election of 1856 and this signaled the end of the party’s popular appeal.
It would have been difficult back then for people to imagine an America that has been as good to the Irish and so embracing of the Irish heritage as the United States has been for the past century or more. Today, when we hear the media talk about undocumented workers and the building of walls the image is generally of Mexican immigrants.
However, there are an estimated 50,000 Irish who are not authorized to be in the US, according to the Irish embassy in Washington, with most of them living in the large Irish populations of New York City, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.
Their reasons for overstaying visas are varied but many of the cases we meet are people who have children here who may no longer be with the American parent. Returning to Ireland means not being able to regain entry to the US for another decade during which time they may never see their child. Living in the shadows is generally accepted as being stressful and anxiety provoking. “Locked-in Syndrome” is a term used to describe how people feel when they are unable to return home for parents’ funerals or to visit loved ones.
Fr. Dan Finn conducts many services for people who are grieving the death of a loved one on the other side of the ocean and he sees first-hand the trauma associated with living in the shadows. Here at the IPC we regularly meet with people whose status is impinging on some aspect of their life whether it be financial or the fact that they are unable to receive medical attention or simply the huge emotional and mental toll that the accompanying stresses of living in the shadows brings on a person or a family.
President Trump has been clear on his plans to transform the immigration system, plans that create fear and anxiety in all immigrant communities. The Irish-America citizenry can easily forget that our ancestors also faced huge discrimination. In the face of a new era, we, as immigrants in a country made up of immigrants, stand in solidarity with other immigrants.
The IPC is available for anybody who wishes to confidentially discuss their situation at 617-265-5300.
Veronica Keys is the Social Work Program Director at the Irish Pastoral Centre