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Immigration in America

Immigration Issues in America      Gerry O'Shea

Emma Lazarus' famous poem on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor displays  an amazing  American national  motif, unmatched by any other country. It articulates an open invitation to people from all over the world,  beckoning them, irrespective of their circumstances, to become a part of the American experiment in democracy.

 Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, your homeless, tempest - tossed to me.

Lazarus, a descendant of Sephardic Jews from Portugal, wrote these lines in 1883 at a time when the powerful Know-Nothing movement was in its pomp, especially in New York and Massachusetts. They preached hatred of all immigrants, in particular of the Irish who came to America in the 19th century in their hundreds of thousands to escape poverty and hunger.

The Know-Nothings, who wanted a country that, in their own words, stood for Temperance, Liberty and Protestantism, spoke of three reasons why they hated the Irish. First and most important, they despised the Catholic Church, claiming that the Irish immigrants would give their allegiance to a dictator in Rome rather than to the Protestant leader of a relatively new republic. Second, they viewed the Irish race or, at least, its Catholic members, as inferior intellectually and morally, on a par with blacks, the lowest class, bottom of the barrel, in their judgment. Third, many of the Irish immigrants were dirt poor, often spoken of by the Protestant elite as degenerate paupers.

Immigration laws were developed by the individual states at that time, and the Irish were very harshly treated, especially in Massachusetts where hundreds of the impoverished immigrants were shipped back to Liverpool and on to a very uncertain life in Dublin.

 The sting of discrimination and inhumane treatment is part of the story of every ethnic group in America. For instance, in May, 1939, a few months before the start of the Second World War,  the ocean liner, the SS St. Luis, was turned back from New York harbor, thus refusing asylum to over 900 Jews trying to escape from Nazi Germany. President Roosevelt - in what was surely his blindest and most reprehensible leadership act - refused to waive immigration laws and the ship had to return to Europe where hundreds of these Jews  ended up in Hitler's death camps.

Back to the Irish in the previous century. In New York, Archbishop John Hughes was determined to protect his flock and his churches from the daily threats of arson and violence by vengeful nativists. The Irish knew that Hughes had their back and he made no bones about his willingness to use force if his people or his property were attacked. His nickname," Dagger" John, was not a misnomer.

Cardinal Dolan has often spoken of those  years of discrimination against Irish Catholics and his admiration for the bold leadership of his predecessor. The Catholic bishops, including the New York cardinal, have been unequivocal in their condemnation of Trump's harsh immigration policies, and they have clearly backed the strong claims of the Hispanic immigrants and other refugees for a place in the United States to live and work and raise their families.

The impressive Congressman Joe Kennedy visited some of these  border detention centers and reacting in sadness to the crying children he recalled similarly hostile treatment for his ancestors in the 19th century. By comparison, Paul Ryan, the powerful Speaker of the House, with a similar family  lineage, instead of calling an emergency meeting of his colleagues to deal with the crisis, issued an innocuous statement saying that the matter "should be addressed."

The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, seemingly a devout Christian, actually quoted a verse from a letter of St. Paul in the New Testament that he claimed supported his right to separate children from their parents. In this upside-down moral world  it seems that any crackpot idea has credibility with some people.

America First policies are openly anti-immigrant. In his speech announcing that he was running for president, Donald Trump claimed that Mexicans who crossed the border illegally were raping women in various cities in Texas. Similarly he pronounced that Muslims in New Jersey cheered  the 9/11 attack in Manhattan.  And, true to form, one of Trump's first acts as president was to ban Muslims from coming into the United States.

More recently he has talked about immigrants as animals infesting the country. We wonder where that kind of extreme presidential rhetoric is coming from. In fact, the crime rate among immigrants is significantly lower than the official number of lawbreakers among people born in the United States.

If Trump reflected for a while on American history, he might understand that it was immigrants and their descendants from every corner of the globe who  built and developed the United States into the most powerful country  in the world.

  Preaching about building high walls to keep people out is very un-American, and promoting racist policies that demonize poor families trying to escape from corrupt and dangerous living conditions in Central America  breaches the values and moral  standards that made the United States a great country.

A few more lines from Lazarus highlight the important ideal of  positive, welcoming immigration policies as distinct from the ongoing embarrassing shenanigans on the Mexican border.

From her beacon hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild-eyed command  - - -

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips. Give me your tired, your poor - -


Gerry OShea blogs at




  1. So true are your words. The question is where is the leadership that can protect the lowly and welcome immigrants, for we are a nation of immigrants!


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