In celebrating our Irish heritage last month on St. Patrick's Day, we reflected on our ancestor's journeys to America. "Irish need not apply" was the joyless greeting thousands of Irish immigrants found as they entered their new country years ago. Forced to emigrate by repeated failure of the potato crop, they left their native Ireland as economic refugees and traveled to the land of opportunity.
Life in The Promised Land was not easy. Employment was the first challenge. Opportunities were limited by employers who treated the Irish as less than human, uncivilized, and ignorant. They worked in mines, steel mills, kitchens, and fields, doing jobs that established residents found undesirable. They often worked two or three jobs, as so many new immigrants must do to survive.
To fit in, early Irish immigrants dropped their Irish names as necessary, lost the Irish accent, and enjoyed Irish song and dance only in close circles. In so doing, Irish-Americans assimilated and soon made significant contributions to the economy, the arts, politics and public service. Today, despite a healthy economy in Ireland, an estimated 40,000 undocumented Irish live in the U.S., including some political refugees.
Though the challenges the Irish encountered as they entered America were significant, immigrants today are met with even greater complexities. Not only does racism confront most immigrants, but bias against accents, religion and dress also creates barriers for those seeking the opportunity to live in this nation built by immigrants.
Now Congress may make things worse.
A proposal which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in December, creates a legal status of "unlawful presence" that would make felons of 11 million undocumented immigrants, legal visitors with temporary status problems, and applicants-in-process. Until now, undocumented status has been a violation of immigration law, a civil penalty, but under this proposal it is an aggravated felony that would subject immigrants to prosecution and immediate deportation.
If registering undocumented visitors and workers is desirable for national security reasons, then this proposal is counterproductive. It would permanently ban those registering from obtaining citizenship, thereby driving undocumented workers further into the shadows.
When one considers how early Irish immigrants relied on the benevolence of others, it is especially distressing that this proposal also makes a felon of anyone helping an undocumented person. Under an expanded definition of "smuggling," this proposal would make a criminal of any relative, neighbor, employer, or friend who offers food, housing, job referrals, or any type of assistance. A counselor who assists victims of domestic violence, a doctor who responds to a traffic accident, and a volunteer working in a soup kitchen could all become felons under the proposal.
This proposal exploits the fears of Americans who worry about losing their jobs or being attacked by terrorists, as well as betrays the very promise of America, all without increasing national security. Millions of people who entered the U.S. with no intention of causing harm will be subjected to harsh and biased treatment.
Now, as the Senate debates immigration reform, we must remember our own journeys, our struggles against racism and bigotry, and our efforts to get work and gain acceptance. We must support those who, like us, simply want to provide for their families and contribute in a positive way. If we remember, we will speak out for justice for all people.
Kathy Kelly, is a longtime Seattle activist for peace and justice. Jack Brophy Smith is an engineer for the Department of Defense.