Reflections on St. Patrick’s Day

I’ve been thinking a lot about St. Patrick’s Day.  Other than the expectation of a meal of corned beef and cabbage, and a glass of green beer, St. Patrick’s Day reminds me that we have forgotten the bias and bigotry that is a major thread in the weaving of our nation’s history.  (Warning: this article contains historical content!  History can be painful.)

We honor a Roman British missionary to Ireland, thought to have died on March 17, 460.  He first arrived in Ireland as a teenage slave, captured by Irish pirates.  Escaping after six years, he returned to England, studied in France and emigrated to Ireland as a missionary.

Parades, rivers and fountains died green, consuming corned beef and green beer are part of our celebrations honoring St. Patrick.   From Boston, to New Orleans, Savannah to St. Paul, San Francisco, and Seattle parades are held to celebrate the citizenry’s Irish heritage.

However, Irish immigrants, weren’t always welcomed when they arrived on our shores.  The potato famine in the 1840’s forced many Irish people to emigrate to the US.*  Although they took jobs that other Americans didn’t want (servants, miners, railroad builders, etc.), they were discriminated against, and harassed.  NINA, the acronym for “No Irish Need Apply” was typical of job ads.  Common signs outside businesses stated “No Dogs or Irish Allowed.”

The Irish weren’t the only people to whom we weren’t welcoming.  In 1882, Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, making it illegal for Chinese to emigrate to our shores.  Each wave of immigrants was met with hostility and derision, even as they served in our military (e.g. Irish in the Civil War, Japanese in WWII).

Whether they arrived on slave ships, as indentured servants, as single men who planned to make their fortune and return home to China, as Jews fleeing pogroms, as southern and eastern Europeans fleeing harsh conditions, or Japanese seeking to create more opportunities for their children, people coming to the US were treated “less than.”

In response to fears of job competition, religious and political differences, and outright racism, a political party was born in the 1850’s.  This party was originally named the Native American Party**, but soon became known as the “Know Nothing” party.  Their goal:  to limit immigration, especially people who practiced a different religion (Catholicism).

Anti-immigrant sentiment continued in the US, resulting in multiple laws between 1917 and 1924 designed to restrict specific types of immigrants: those who could not read and write English, most Asians, and set limits to slow immigration from southern and eastern Europe.

The “Red Scare” of 1919-1921 fueled American concerns about rising unemployment and fomented xenophobic fears of foreign radicals migrating to undermine American values and provoke an uprising.

The Immigration Act of 1924 was designed to severely restrict immigration from southern and eastern Europe, emigrants from Africa and outright banned immigration of Arabs and Asians.  Its purpose was to protect the “ideal of American homogeneity.”

It wasn’t until the civil rights movement in the 1960’s that the laws were changed to replace ethnic quotas in place for decades.  In 1990, George H.W. Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990, increasing legal immigration to the US by 40%.

Here’s where I end the history section and get back to what I’ve been mulling over regarding St. Patrick’s Day.  Each wave of immigrants has brought innovative, hard-working, adventurous, and industrious people.

Immigrants or the children of immigrants founded:  ATT, Kohl’s, US & diversityComcast, Nordstrom, Google, Yahoo, eBay, to name just a few. A study published in 2011 found that 40% of our Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.

If it weren’t for immigrants, I wouldn’t be able to benefit from a diversity of clothing, cars, software, medicines, food, and friends.  If my great grandfather and grandmother hadn’t emigrated from The Netherlands, where would I be today?

So why do we replicate our history of discrimination, xenophobia, and fear-mongering?  Instead of focusing on unreasoned fears, let us celebrate and express gratitude for the many gifts immigrants, who crossed oceans on slave ships, in steerage, and planes, have contributed to our nation.***

Take a few moments to reflect on the history of immigrants who came to the US, and the behavior of our ancestors.  It seems to me we are replicating patterns from our history. I don’t believe in xenophobia and I don’t support those who foment it in others.  What about you?

*The first wave of immigrants arrived sometime between 13,000 and 50,000 years ago.  Their progeny became the tribes of Native Americans.  The second wave of immigrants to America was primarily English and Irish between the years 1609 and 1775.

**“Native American” referred to white people with an established history in the US who were Protestant.

*** I don’t want to imply that slaves had a choice in immigrating.  They didn’t.