Thursday, April 6, 2006

The Immigrant Path to Acceptance

A group of immigrants has entered the United States en masse, bringing with them many things that Americans found objectionable. Poor, Catholic, uneducated, and different, these immigrants became the biggest scapegoat of the American public. They worked difficult, menial jobs that no American citizens wanted to do, often in unsanitary and dangerous conditions with low pay. The men would get odd jobs when they could as handymen, janitors, and carpenters. The women would get jobs as waitresses, nannies, and housekeepers. There were many conflicts with people already established in this country over jobs, and one of the biggest groups they had problems with was African-Americans. They lived many families to a single room, sometimes with no daylight or even running water, where the American public would complain that they were turning their neighborhoods into ghettos. There was public outcry over the rise in crime that accompanied these immigrants, and the American public wanted them gone.

The people referred to were the Irish, and in the late 1800's early 1900's they went through very similar things as latino immigrants are going through now and have been going through for years. Today, when someone mentions the hardships that the Irish immigrants went through, people often roll their eyes because they can't believe things were that bad for them. They're white people that speak English, after all, and now nobody can tell who is descended from Irish immigrants or people who descended from Anglo Saxons. This is a testament to how well integrated with American society the Irish had become, and it provides a blueprint into how other immigrant groups can become accepted by American society as well.

Like most immigrant communities, the Irish immigrants would live amongst people like themselves, and kept their own customs and traditions. As a result, there was some difficulty for them to integrate into the rest of society. However, the positive aspect is that it kept them more unified as a group and helped keep their traditions alive. If the Irish immigrants had worked hard to immediately assimilate, we would have lost many of the cultural icons that we take for granted today as a nation, the most famous of which is Saint Patrick's Day. The political ramifications of their unity also gives us a reminder of what is going on today within the latino communities. We see many paralells today in this regard, which is arguably a huge source of the organization we are seeing as protests form around the country.

(more below the fold)

tags: ,

The key that the Irish immigrants of the past can teach the immigrants of today is that assimilation should be on your terms, not the terms of everyone else. Had the Irish simply tried to fit in completely with the Anglo Saxon Americans, they would have lost not only a chance of political power, but their identities as well. We must remember this when people argue for immigrants to start speaking English, stop being proud of the countries they came from, and act like white people. Integration will come when both sides learn from each other and try to take the best of everyone else's ideas and customs.

Another similar hurdle that the Irish overcame and today's immigrants are facing is that of poverty. Many things that the anti-immigrant lobby complain about stem from this single issue. When people are poor and desperate, they are more likely to be driven to commit crimes of all sorts, they don't live in nice clean places, and they do things that middle class and rich people may not like. Immigrants are usually hard-working, honest, dedicated people committed to doing what is best for themselves and their families. Americans can benefit from this greatly if we simply give immigrants this chance.

The ones that are poor are already working hard to get themselves out of poverty. They often take many jobs, do not live a lavish lifestyle, and seek new ways to make money. This is expressed in the statistics that show how immigrants are more likely to start their own business than someone born in the U.S. This is one way in which immigrants will add wealth and create jobs in this country.

When it comes to the economic impact of immigrants, most Americans seem to be in agreement that the immigrants are responsible for a loss of personal wealth. This point of view is in error. If there were less interference by greedy people and more regulation of business, we would see standard economic processes fixing any problems resulting from immigration. For example, immigrants earning lower wages would either be corrected by products and services being sold more cheaply (deflation), or by organized labor integrating the immigrants and bringing them up quickly to the same expectations as people born in the U.S. The second option is exactly what the Irish did. They formed unions before unions were known.

The Irish organization known as Tammany Hall was heavily involved with both politics and labor. As a result, they helped the Irish gain a foothold financially as well as politically. Tammany Hall was not perfect, but it was a start. Cesar Chavez is a hero to many immigrants. His United Farm Workers were also not perfect, but helped establish both a political and economic source of power for people who had been traditionally downtrodden. By helping these people, Chavez also helped the rest of the Americans who would work in farming jobs.

Unifying all of the workers provides benefits to everyone by providing a bargaining tool with the employers. This is why most unions today are adopting policies that seek to legalize undocumented immigrants and help them join their unions. It results in a better quality of life for everyone by taking away the ability for employers to go outside of the unions to seek employees.

The political impact of immigrants is only beginning to be felt. While there have been minority politicians for years now, the latino minority in particular is just starting to flex their political muscles. The marches that have been going on are a sign of this; organizations are being built, people are becoming more aware, and there is a strong desire to take action. The Irish immigrants also had such desires to organize and take action. They joined the Democratic party in large numbers and made their influence known by helping more of their people vote.

A critical problem in the latino community today is that not enough people are registered to vote, and even less actually do vote. This can only be changed by a combination of education of human rights and examples of how they can make a beneficial difference to this country. The Irish had proven themselves often. A descendent of Irish immigrants, former NY governor Al Smith brought about political reforms that had inspired much of FDR's "New Deal" that brought our country out of Great Depression. Another influential descendent of these Irish immigrants was president John F. Kennedy. The Irish immigrants did not take over this country and remake our government in the vision of Ireland, they came here, adopted our ideals, kept their own, and worked alongside everyone else to help form a better understanding of the political world and how to make this country a better place.

With all this said, it sounds like the new groups of immigrants could simply solve their problems by copying what the Irish did. It is not that easy, and there are no cookie cutter solutions for xenophobia, bigotry, and powerlessness. There are some differences between the state of our country now and how it was a century ago. There are differences in the people too. For example, poor latino immigrants often come here unable to speak English. Fortunately, statistics show that the majority of them do learn English after they are established here. They also look different sometimes. Latinos can often blend in fairly easily when they have lighter skin. It is unfortunate that people are still judged by how "white" they are in this day and age, but it is a strong indicator of social standing in this country. Additionally, while the Irish faced a lot of opposition when they arrived here, they were at least allowed to arrive here. This element adds a different facet to the immigration debate today, because our broken system refuses to let many people into our country.

There are many points that we have to consider when we look at the Irish immigrants and their actions and try to apply that to the immigrant groups of today. There is no direct solution, but there are clues that we can learn from the past. The Irish showed us how they did it, and now some of their descendents are fighting to help today's immigrants make a better life for themselves. The McCain Kennedy bill was a bipartisan proposal of two descendents of the Irish to work together, despite political differences, in order to repair much of the harm and hatred that immigrants face today. It was not perfect, but it is a start. We are a nation of immigrants, either immigrants ourselves or descendents of immigrants. To reject our immigrants now would be to reject our past, our present, and our future.


Anonymous said...

Indeed, boz-then the WOPs followed. WOP, of course, is short for WithOut Passport-an illegal alien.

They were Italian.


Anonymous said...

I like your article.

theboz said...


There are many groups that have been through similar suffering. The Italians, the Irish, the Germans, the Chinese, etc. all with their own stories but the theme of bigotry that they had to overcome is always similar. Hate is nothing new in this country, but I would like to see us make it history.

guest said...

Contrary to popular belief, it is most likely not an acronym for "With Out Papers" or "Without Passport", one of the most famous examples of folk etymology or backronym. The reason for this is that the term was already in popular use as early as 1910, a period in which no immigrant needed papers to enter the United States (passports and visas were not required of immigrants entering the country until 1921)