Saint Patrick’s Day in Fortress America


“‘Where Liberty is, there is my country.’

So said the enthusiastic 18th century revolutionist. But if he lived nowadays he would have a long search for his country -where Liberty is. The only liberty we know now, outside of the liberty to go hungry, stands in New York Bay, where it has been placed, I am told, in order that immigrants from Europe may get their first and last look at it before setting foot on American soil.

You see, it would be decidedly awkward for our Fourth of July orators to be orating to the newcomers about the blessings of American liberty and then to be asked by some ignorant European to tell them where that liberty is to be found.

Some ignorant, discontented unit of the hordes of Europe, for instance, might feel tempted to go nosing around in search of liberty, and his search might take him into the most awkward places.

He might go down South and see little white American children of seven, eight and nine years working in our cotton mills enjoying their liberty to work for a boss when other children are still compelled by tyrannical laws to stay on wrestling with the dreadful problems of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.

The Liberty we have in Bartholdi’s statue is truly typical of liberty in this age and country.

It is placed upon a pedestal out of reach of the multitudes; it can only be approached by those who have money enough to pay the expense; it has a lamp to enlighten the world, but the lamp is never lit, and it smiles upon us as we approach America, but when we are once in the country we never see anything but its back

‘Tis a great world we live in.”

From Facets of American Liberty, James Connolly, 1908

American rivers will literally run green on Saint Patrick’s Day to celebrate the ‘Irish in America.’ Annually, massive parades, green beer, the ‘wearing of the green’ and a genuflection by the political establishment mark the Irish contribution to and presence in the United States. The 2006 US census bureau reports that close to 36 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. However, such a spectacular celebration of one of America’s largest immigrant population seems especially ill-fitted today in the midst of a growing crackdown on immigrants and the ratcheting up of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Crudely put, every foreign military adventure must be complemented by a war at home: undocumented immigrants are a domestic target in the United States today. The war on immigrants consists of workplace raids, Greyhound bus raids, neighborhood checkpoints, armed vigilantes at the Mexican border and hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of legislation intending to make life here unbearable. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested 30,408 immigrants with deportation orders in fiscal year 2007, about twice as many as the previous year. ICE claims to have deported a record 276, 912 immigrants in 2007. And this does not include those who are pressured into accepting ‘voluntary departure.’ Up to 30,000 undocumented are held in deplorable detention centers on any given day.

As ‘Irishness’ is celebrated real Irish men and women are caught up in this vicious dragnet. Every week undocumented Irish are being sent back to Ireland or put in detention centers. The October 9, 2007 press release of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in New York reads as follows:

“Over the past three weeks, the Emerald Isle Immigration Center has received countless calls from friends and families of individuals who have been detained by Homeland Security and are in the process of being deported.

These are all tragic circumstances and highlight the plight of the undocumented in our community and the urgent need for immigration reform. Until there is any change, we should be reminded of the risks our community faces with any travel in the US and with any encounter with law enforcement authorities, including during traffic stops. The reality remains that travel within the US is not without risk. That risk increases the closer you travel to the border with Canada or Mexico and especially if you are within 100 miles of that border, the current law permits ICE to demand proof of ANYONE’S legal status within the US. The best way to prevent these situations is to pay strict attention to obeying local traffic laws and avoid unnecessary confrontation with authorities.

“Many of our undocumented community have entered the US on the Visa Waiver program, explained Siobhan Dennehy, Emerald Isle Immigration Center’s Executive Director ” and actually, what that waiver means is that if you have overstayed, you have waived your rights to a defense for your overstay in front of an Immigration Judge and that if caught, you will be automatically deported. This applies to everyone who signs that green visa waiver form upon entry to the US.”

Some 35 million, 12% of the total U.S. population, are foreign-born. Of that total around 12 million are estimated to be undocumented, including around 50,000 Irish undocumented. Mexicans make up around 60% of the undocumented population. And it is towards Mexicans that a small but well-organized and well-funded modern Know-Nothing movement directs their venom and gets to drive public discussion of immigration. You’ll often find them apoplectic at the sight of the Mexican flags but they have absolutely no problem with the Irish contagion on St. Patrick’s Day. This and their visible mumbling confusion when confronted with the problems faced by Irish undocumented tears the veil of their thinly disguised racism summed up in ‘we support legal immigration.’

Surely, anyone who has watched the remarkable performance of Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis in the Gangs of New York can see the Irish and Mexican immigration stories have so much in common. Today, the numbers of Irish arriving into U.S cities is comparatively low compared to Mexicans or Filipinos. The Republic of Ireland’s recent economic fortunes have meant that fewer Irish have been forced to leave in large numbers to find employment overseas. In fact, Ireland has now become a beacon of economic hope for immigrants from all over Eastern Europe and Africa.

The mainstream media and US Presidential candidates scarcely acknowledge that vast numbers of Mexican workers have been driven here out of pure desperation because of US imposed neo-liberal trade agreements. NAFTA is only the most recent manifestation of Uncle Sam’s imperial trade policy towards its southern neighbors. Internal restructuring of the US economy recruited Mexican workers in massive numbers and simultaneously drove down the living standards of US and Mexican workers either side of the border.

Irish emigration to the U.S. exploded during the years of Ireland’s Great Hunger. The famine lasted from 1845 to 1851 and was a disaster of unimaginable proportions. Over 1 million people died of starvation and disease and another 1 million emigrated. As Christine Kinealy points out “The Irish Famine did not occur in a vacuum and is better understood within the continuum of Anglo-Irish relations.” The potato blight was a natural occurrence but Imperial Britain’s free-market capitalism meant the outcome was far more devastating. The obvious point: the hidden hand of the free-market, today and yesterday, has always played a large role in shaping where we go, where we can live and where we work.

The St. Patrick Day parades illuminates how the US has benefited greatly from massive waves of immigration. The US could never have become an economic and military powerhouse without wave after wave of newcomers, ‘flooding’ its shores. Yes, immigrants, from every corner of the globe, and their children built America and continue to build America. The great wealth and power of America’s elites and the political establishment comes in no small part from the labor of immigrant workers. This makes the treatment of its newest arrivals all the more reprehensible. ICE raids and Lou Dobbs represent the schizophrenic sickness of American politics today.

In the Irish context, this sickness is embodied in the pathetic but dangerous persona of Republican Congressman, Peter King. An outright reactionary, King was once a highly prominent and outspoken supporter of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), back in its Marxist phase. In the 1980’s, New York based IRA supporters, many of them undocumented economic refugees, were the ground troops for King’s political career. Today, King is a leading Know-Nothing, sponsoring some of the most draconian anti-immigrant legislation. The Peter King phenomenon is merely a microcosm of the sickness of the whole political and economic system. Immigrants are the source of great wealth and profit but they are also stigmatized, criminalized and hounded. The hypocrisy here does not belong to the undocumented.

Today, we are told we have to wait for a solution, for legalization. Yet, the war continues. In fact, it gets worse. We should not have to wait. Immigrants, past, present and future, are owed a tremendous debt, the fruit of their labor, in America. The raids, the deportations, the breaking up of families, the fear-mongering has to end now. Yet, none of the candidates demand this. The assumptions enforcement politics are built on are racist and legitimizing them only aids the immigrant-bashers.

Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, is set to give an address to a joint session of the US Congress on April 30th. He could speak out forcefully about the conditions the undocumented face, demand an end to the terrorizing of all immigrant communities and take a stand in solidarity with all the undocumented within US borders. However, the odds are against this. Ahern is praised for steering the Irish economy to unprecedented heights and Ireland certainly has boomed in concert with the US boom. Yet, there is another less discussed synthesis: the gap between the haves and haves not has soared in Ireland as in the US.

In his book, The Corporate Takeover of Ireland, Kieran Allen, documents how the Irish political establishment has bent over backwards to give American corporations everything they want and more: massive tax breaks and a low-wage, pliant workforce. Worse still, Ireland’s political elite acted as the US’s hammer in the European Union, advancing a specific US agenda and advancing neo-liberalism in general. The Irish State is a neo-liberal regime modeled on and dependent on the US. In many respects, Ireland today seems like an economic colony of the United States. US investment has come at a price. The U.S. socialist journalist, John Reed, once said: “Uncle Sam never gives something for nothingHe comes along with a sack stuffed with hay in one hand and a whip in the other. Anyone who accepts Uncle Sam’s promises at face value will find that they must be paid for in sweat and blood.”

Like in the United States, a large majority of Ireland’s population is hostile to the US war on Iraq but the Irish government has refused to deny access to Shannon Airport to the US military. Even though Ireland is officially neutral, Shannon has become a key refueling facility for US war planes en route between the US, Afghanistan and Iraq. Ahern’s real legacy is that is no different from the disgraced Tony Blair.

Some commentators have said Ahern has intimate knowledge of the plight of the undocumented in the US. Perhaps this is true. However, it does not mean he will confront Congress. A few suffering and moaning undocumented will not get in the way of Ireland’s special relationship with the US. Is the Irish Government doing all it can? When you go to the Irish Consulate website and click on ’emergency assistance’ the same page reappears. There were definitely helpful people at the Consulate who seemed to understand what is happening but the policy is not to challenge the neo-liberal masters.

Maybe Bono and U2 will use their ‘clout’ and boycott the US until the war against the undocumented ceases. Maybe Ahern will embarrass US politicians over the apartheid conditions immigrants face..Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams, has said: “The plight of the thousands of Irish undocumented working and living in the USA is a priority for Sinn Fein. We will continue to raise this issue at every political and governmental level open to us.” The US ­ Northern Ireland Investment Conference scheduled for Belfast on May 7-9 will be an excellent opportunity to put this into practice. Maybe.

During the US invasion of Mexico in 1846 a group of Irish immigrants had enough with hypocrisy. They deserted the invading US Army and joined the Mexican side as the Saint Patrick’s Battalion (Batallón de San Patricio). Real heroes:

“In all my letter, I forgot to tell you under what banner we fought so bravely. It was that glorious Emblem of native rights, that being the banner which should have floated over our native Soil many years ago, it was St. Patrick, the Harp of Erin, the Shamrock upon a green field.” ­ John Riley, rebel commander of the San Patricios.

SHAUN HARKIN, originally from Derry, can be reached at: