From Coffin Ships to Coyotes: A Saint Patrick’s Day Reflection

I’ve always loved Saint Patrick’s Day.  For me, it’s not just about the wearin’ o’ the green and consuming mass quantities of alcohol.  I’ve attended Irish cultural events for most of my life due to Irish heritage on my mother’s side.  The atmosphere, music and history lessons have always appealed to me.  As my political views evolved, I also began to see the day as a celebration of immigration and anti-imperialism.  Admittedly, such high-minded notions are often drowned in streams of Guinness and neglected by tipsy revelers.

The Great Famine (1845-1852) reduced Ireland’s population by about 25 percent due to starvation and emigration.  The biological cause of the famine was potato blight, but the roles of British government policy and wealthy (often absentee) landlords cannot be ignored. Driven from their country by hunger, colonialism and a degrading feudal economic system, many Irish boarded shoddy craft which came to be known as “coffin ships.”  Mortality was high on the ships due to disease and poor conditions.  Survivors entering US ports were not greeted with open arms by the predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant population.  But one inconvenience these immigrants did not have to contend with was a slew of federal immigration laws.

Since passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the US government has responded to nativist hysteria (directed primarily at non-Europeans) by creating a bloated immigration apparatus.  Throughout US history, Mexicans have been welcomed for their labor or reviled, depending on which way political winds were blowing.  But Mexicans did not encounter a regular contingent of US border patrol agents until 1924.  So, Mexican people have not always hired “coyotes” as guides or risked dying in the desert in order to come north.

Today, Mexicans are the preferred scapegoats of modern Know-Nothings.  Among the most prominent scolds of “illegals” is swaggering Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio.  Sheriff Arpaio, a shameless publicity whore and J. Edgar Hoover-wannabe, never forfeits an opportunity to screw with Mexicans.

But there is an ironic twist to the Arpaio story.  One could be excused for picturing Sheriff Joe as the retrograde spawn of Woodrow Wilson and John Wayne.  But, as his surname suggests, Arpaio was born to Italian immigrants.   In A Renegade History of The United States (2010), Thaddeus Russell points out that Italians were often viewed as inferior by Anglo-Saxons.  Russell cites a 1919 study by Harvard economics professor Robert F. Foerster which states, “In many things, the Italian has the mind of a child.”  Foerster also complains that the Italian’s “universal vice was his dirtiness; he was dirtier than the Negro” (p.185).  By viewing newer immigrants with similar disdain, Arpaio and his supporters ensure that history repeats itself.

Arpaio may be extreme, but many Americans share aspects of his paranoia.  Think of people who grow visibly agitated around those who do not speak English.  Or those who blather on about immigrants taking “our” jobs.  Most ridiculous are the Pat Buchanan types who liken Mexican immigration to an invasion of the US.  Now that is a classic example of projection!

People who demand immigration restrictions in the name of security or protectionism are, to put it bluntly, dupes.  Securing the border is not about repelling an invasion or empowering US workers.  Instead, these policies empower the two greatest predators in our society: The state and the corporations it creates.  As Aviva Chomsky writes:

When U.S. citizens rail about “illegals” or ask “what part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” they are subscribing to a set of beliefs that justify cruel and inhumane treatment. What they themselves fail to understand is that “illegality” is not a scientific fact, but a social construction. If a society creates a legal structure that deems some of its members unworthy or “illegal,” then illegality comes to be naturalized as an attribute of those who have been accorded that status.

Advocates of freedom and human rights should reject this cynical game and support open borders for people, not just product.  This Saint Patrick’s Day, please take a moment to remember those who have suffered due to inhumane immigration laws, imperialism and corporatism.  Then, raise your pint and offer your fellow immigrants a festive slainte or a hearty salud, dinero y amor!

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