Immigration: the Past Could Become Prologue

Irish immigration to the United States is one of the historical narratives that has shaped America’s image of itself as a generous and welcoming nation. Between 1845 and 1855, some 1.5 million impoverished souls escaped famine and found refuge in the US. Many put down roots in cities such as Boston, New York, and Chicago, where some of their descendants still live today.

A lesser-known story is that thousands of  other Irish migrants, even those who would eventually live in the US for many years and rear American-born children, were forcibly deported to Britain, and from there, back to Ireland.

The reason for their exile was that they were guilty of the crime of poverty. According to Hidetaka Hirota, a historian from City University of New York, the state of Massachusetts alone sent approximately 50, 000 legal immigrants back across the Atlantic. Many of them were Irish. Powerful nativist politicians encouraged and orchestrated a reverse exodus that spanned more than three decades. They believed that these “St. Patrick’s vermin” were “leeches upon [the] taxpayers,” and preferred to “exist by begging.”

Today, criminalizing and penalizing an immigrant’s economic troubles are again on the rise, albeit in a less severe manner than in the past. Of course, this can worsen depending on the political winds in November, which could further embolden government officials bent on an anti-immigrant agenda.

Last week, the Trump administration released a set of proposed rules denying visas and green cards to legal immigrants who use, or might someday need, certain types of social services. The proposals are now open to public comment, so they are not yet official policy. The plans can eventually become binding without the approval of Congress.

Many studies have shown that immigrants avail themselves of public aid at rates lower than the native-born population even though they pay into national welfare programs through their tax dollars. Nevertheless, it is likely that the administration is trying to conflate the foreign-born with the fictional image of welfare cheats as a way to build support for measures that would reduce the total number of immigrants who are already legal residents.

Politico reports that an immigrant may be designated a public charge if she benefits from any of the following social services: “[The] Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (welfare), Medicaid, Medicare Part D (prescription drug subsidies), and Section 8 (housing vouchers)…” Should the proposed regulations become enforceable, they could bar an applicant from certain types of status that would otherwise lead to citizenship.

Incidentally, the term “public charge” has roots in the nineteenth century. State officials applied it in often cursory and subjective ways to groups whom they deemed unfit to remain in the US, including destitute Irish. We might see such arbitrary decisions in the future.

Public opinion, however, could be a major obstacle to the White House’s stated goal of thinning out the immigrant population. According to a 2018 Gallup opinion poll, 75 percent of Americans think that immigration is beneficial to the United States. When asked about legal immigrants, a greater number of respondents, 84 percent, agree that they are good for the country.

Another recent survey by Pew finds that since 2001, 38 percent believe that the current influx of immigration should remain the same. Another 32 percent think that the present rate should be increased. Only 24 percent expressed the opinion that the number of newcomers should be reduced. So, 70 percent either believes that the current size of the foreign population is about right, or that the government should allow more people into the country. Such preferences speak to welcoming sentiments that are contrary to ultra-conservative intentions.

So, how does the US’s current anti-immigration government find a way around positive attitudes towards new arrivals, current legal residents, or pathways to citizenship? One way is to connect longstanding, pernicious stereotypes of numerical minorities to the targeted undesirables. There is nothing new in this. In the nineteenth century, for instance, nativist newspaper editors published caricatures of poor Irish immigrants who resembled the dehumanizing depictions of African-Americans that were then common currency in popular culture. The message was clear: both groups were thought to have languished in laziness and ignorance. Connecting the perceived character and cultural flaws of a “known” quantity to those of foreigners could help engineer the necessary anxiety and resentment to isolate and deport the latter.

Politicians have long known about the wide vein of electoral gold that can be mined from antipathy to those with darker skins. In more recent times, concocting stories of epidemic-level (black or Hispanic) welfare fraud that is said to occur at the expense of the hardworking (white) taxpayer (whites are the largest group of recipients of public aid) has been an effective way to harvest votes. For example, in the 1980s, not a few politicians treated the public to numerous tales of welfare queens who glided around America’s crumbling cities in sleek, new luxury cars, clutching government checks in their bejeweled hands, and turning them over to currency exchanges and liquor stores for cold, hard cash. Such people did not exist, but it didn’t matter because benefits accrued during election season.

A 2018 study conducted by researchers at UC Berkeley and Stanford University that was published in the journal Social Forces, found that racial resentment commonly fuels opposition to welfare. The article points out that during difficult economic times, whites feel that their place in society becomes endangered and express anger toward minorities who they believe disproportionately benefit from federal aid. Consequently, they frequently oppose welfare even though assistance programs help all Americans in need, including members of their own demographic.

The rhetorical criminalizing of Americans who are viewed as “known cheats” paves the way for legal proposals to punish foreigners who, some suggest, might well become spongers, too. No one should be rewarded with food, money, medical care, or American citizenship at the expense of honest people who work for a living.

It is important to note that the Trump administration has not explicitly made these connections in the context of its newly-introduced plans, but they don’t need to. Given its propensity for race baiting and uber-nationalism, members of the current government must know from experience the persuasive power bound up in such associations, which is why they have put their proposals forward in the first place.

It is likely that Trump and his adviser on immigration policy, Stephen Miller, can rely on some Americans to tie the ends together all on their own.

We have not yet returned to a time in America when immigrants were deported en masse for the dual misdeeds of suffering privation and receiving aid. If the current collection of GOP functionaries in Washington, D.C. has its way though, we very well might.

Preventing that depends on translating the good will of many Americans into constructive action.

Michael Slager is an English teacher at Loyola University Chicago.