Speaking of Immigrants

Joanna Weiss began her column on immigrant children in powerful fashion the other day: “What if the Irish potato famine happened today?” We do have that history and I’ve always marveled at how it was summarized by my late friend the Boston College historian Thomas O’Connor in his book The Boston Irish: A Political History “If there had existed in the nineteenth century a computer able to digest all the appropriate data, it would have reported one city in the entire world where an Irish Catholic, under any circumstance, should never, ever, set foot. That city was Boston, Massachusetts.”

Professor Ubertaccio wrote about this topic yesterday in The Demagogues Among Us. He is a descendant of Italian immigrants; my grandparents were Irish. As the descendant of a once despised immigrant population it stings to see others who share that heritage, or anyone else, heap abusive rhetoric on immigrant children.

To a great extent this is a battle of words, of the effort to control the dialogue. So I don’t use the term “illegal alien” because I don’t believe human beings are illegal, particularly not children. I don’t read redmassgroup to follow news of the “child invasion” Johnson child invasion     nor did I go to the State House the other day to “Stop the Invasion.” Kuhner invasion Massachusetts is not a “border state.” Miller border state       Ms. Weiss provided a fine historical account of how many of our ancestors escaped the “illegal” or “undocumented” status when they came here “legally.” The country simply had not perfected yet, as we have, the art of keeping the lesser races out.

How it must have tormented Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge who for thirty years, working with the Immigration Restriction League, sought to limit access to the country. The Irish were bad enough but by the 1880s and 1890s in came “Italians, Germans, eastern European Jews, French Canadians, Slavs, Syrians, Portuguese, and Scandinavians” as Richard D. Brown and Jack Tager write in Massachusetts: a Concise History. In 1896 Lodge’s Senate committee reported a scientific study showing that “Southern and eastern Europeans were disproportionality poor, diseased, and criminal” and were cultural “aliens.” Anglo-Saxons and northwestern Europeans were far better stock, and Lodge determined that a literacy test would weed out the lesser races. In 1896 Lodge’s bill passed both houses, but was vetoed and despite Lodge’s best efforts was not passed again until 1913 (a period sufficient to allow my grandfathers to arrive) but the bill was vetoed by President Taft. In 1915 another version passed the Congress but was vetoed by President Wilson. It finally became law in the xenophobia after World War I – alas, too late to prevent Senator Lodge’s beloved Bay State from being overrun by inferior races.

How bad are illegals invading our border state? They are “millions of leeches from a primitive country [who] come here to leech off you.” Or “these leeches upon our taxpayers.”

Whoops, clumsy mistake by me. Actually the first quote is from former Boston radio talk show host Jay Severin, attacking Mexican immigrants in 2009. The second remark is from a Know-Nothing Party leader in the 1850s, reflecting on his new neighbors, the Irish.

Ah, leeches upon our taxpayers. I prefer not to think of my Irish ancestors that way. Nor do I think of undocumented immigrant children, or for that matter undocumented immigrant adults, that way. Rather I think they have something in common with the Irish of the Christy Moore song “City of Chicago”:

Eighteen forty-seven

Was the year it all began

Deadly pains of hunger

Drove a million from the land

They journeyed not for glory

Their motive wasn’t greed

Just a voyage of survival

Across the stormy sea

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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