Irish immigrant at a bar

Irish and undocumented: Ireland’s émigrés dodged deportation until the Trump era

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11 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States. 50,000 of them are Irish.

Often, the face of immigrants who seek legal resident status are brown and Latino; but, black and white undocumented persons suffer the same consequences if detained by Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS).

Added to the fears of the undocumented, is a rise in immigrant arrests from across racial and ethnic lines heightens concerns.

Photo credit: Nitish Meena

During Barack Obama’s presidency, INS deported more unauthorized immigrants than any other US Administration. With a year under the Trump Administration, a visible drop in deportations shows, but documented are a dramatic spike in arrests and placements in detention centers.

The reason for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to jail undocumented persons is far from notions of citizenship and patriotism. It is rooted in the love of money.

More earnings come from holding a person in a detention center than a citizen in jail. Estimates in 2016 show that taxpayers foot a bill of $10,854 per deportation. Also in the year, ICE used $3.2 billion in arrests, processing and deportations.

As detention centers fill with undocumented populations, privatized prisons experience a boom. The profits provide incentives for investors to lobby for arrests and long-term detention. many who support Trump. Now, no one is safe. Not even whites.

No luck o’ the Irish

Recently, BBC news reported the deportation of John Cunningham, an undocumented Irishman who came to Boston on a 90-day work visa in 1999.

In 2014, INS issued a warrant for Cunningham’s detention, but he skipped the hearing. In June 2017, he was arrested and sent back.

The tight-knit Irish American community in Boston expressed shock. Some were not aware of his status, while others thought that authorities should grant leniency; allowing him to stay.

Up until his detainment, Cunningham enjoyed more mobility in the US than most immigrants. Insulated by his whiteness, he started a business then moved into middle-class status.

Even he admitted that his whiteness afforded him a mobility other undocumented immigrants do not possess.

“Most people think undocumented and they think people who come across the southern border. They’re not thinking about the Irish guy who lives right next to them,” Cunningham said in an interview with a WUNC reporter. “They don’t see that part of it, but we have to live with that every day.”

According to research by the Minority Policy Institute, Mexicans, Central and South Americans make up 77 percent of unauthorized people. As far as undocumented whites, they fly under the radar, largely.

History of race and immigration

Statue of Liberty. Photo credit: Annie Spratt

White privilege within a highly radicalized American citizenship has historically favored European immigrants since colonial America.

Prior to the 1965 Hart-Cellar immigration reform, there existed a national origins quota that prioritized Western and Northern European nations. At the same time, pre-1965 policies severely restricted immigrants of color, and in particular, immigrants from Asia, the Caribbean, Africa and Latin America.

For hundreds of years, Europeans migrated in large waves often with little education and working menial jobs.

When the Irish immigrated in the 1850s, in the midst of a serious economic decline known as the “Potato Famine,” they came as refugees fleeing starvation and abject poverty for opportunity. And unlike the quote at bottom of the Statue of Liberty that states, “Give me your poor,” white Americans did not welcome them.

In fact, the discourse around the Irish spoke of them burdening the economy as welfare recipients. For years, the Irish were not white at all and were often compared to the status of blacks, or below them.

Racial resistance

During the Civil War, Irish proved to be quite dispensable. Soon after immigrants finished their processing on Ellis Island, they were thrust into the Union Army to fight for a cause in which they were highly unfamiliar. However, it was a condition of citizenship, so they acquiesced.

Growing resentment from the predominantly poor and working class resulted in the Draft Riots of 1863, a series of violence and disorder. Led by mostly Irish men, rioters attacked blacks and white sympathizers for forcing them to enlist in what they called a “nigger war.”

Over the next weeks, chaos ensued in the bloodiest rioting in the history of the U.S. Millions of dollars in damage and an estimated count from dozens to hundreds were killed. Soon after, Irish immigrants began to embed themselves into white Anglo culture.

Part of Irish enfranchisement comes from them dominating as performers of minstrelsies, a pop culture ridiculing African American culture and life. Irish Americans painted their faces black to perform skits and musical tunes. To date, minstrel and black face are the most prominent and long-running pop culture employed in entertainment in the country.

Racial resistance

A new wave of immigrant

Once the 1965 Hart Cellar Act passed, it focused on bringing non-whites. Unlike the millions of poor, working class European immigrants, the law required immigrants from non-white countries to be highly-educated and science professionals. And their was a cap to who could come, so they arrived in lesser numbers.

Asians, Africans, Latinos and Carribean people trickled into the country with more restrictions and less of a success rate of being selected to immigrate.

By this time, the Irish successfully assimilated and were just, white. Ironically, Irish Americans like a number of American whites, express disdain towards immigrants of color.

Now, the recent arrest of Cunningham forces the undocumented Irish to re-assess their long-built whiteness. BBC reports that Irish groups started to partner with Latino immigration advocates.

Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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