By Andrew Desposito (an Irish-American immigration attorney)
While many will be celebrating the holiday wearing green clothing, eating or drinking green food and celebrating with some Irish music, today is also a day for many Irish-Americans to remember why this day is celebrated. Most Irish-Americans in the United States are descendants of immigrants who came to the U.S. seeking better lives. It is about our ancestors leaving that country, often in bitter circumstances, and risking everything on a hazardous journey and being met with fierce hostility and scorn. It is about immigrants struggling, and mostly succeeding, in their new life, or making success possible for their children and grandchildren.
It is a story that should describe all newcomers to America. Before the mass exodus from Ireland provoked by the great potato famine of the 1840s, new arrivals to North America were either settlers or slaves. The Catholic Gaelic Irish were the first cohort consistently labeled as “immigrants” in the modern, quasi-pejorative sense, and their experience established a stereotype, a template, applied ever since to whichever national or ethnic group happened to be the latest impoverished arrivals: French-Canadians, Chinese, Italians, Eastern Europeans, or Latinos. But thinking about the contributions of Irish-Americans to the U.S., their story is the same as many others who immigrate to the U.S. with hopes and dreams of a better life. In time, many Irish-Americans rose through the ranks of business and politics to reach the heights of our society (think President John F Kennedy, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, etc). The U.S. is a place where any who come has a chance of doing great things.
So let’s have one day — March 17 — where the word “immigration” is not immediately followed by the word “problem” in our national conversation. Because that has never, ever been our real immigrant story. St. Patrick’s Day reminds us to celebrate, not despise or fear, immigrants. And the hyphenated-Irish, descendants of the first “immigrants,” ought to lead the parade.