At a time when we are confronted with near-daily reports about the dangers posed by immigrants, it is important to remind ourselves of who we are as Americans—immigrants and the descendants of immigrants. It is important for us to reflect on our history and to think of those who came before us, whose courage and hardship afforded us our every opportunity.
Let’s also reflect on the fact that many of our parents and grandparents came here to escape poverty, famine, oppression, and discrimination.
We all came from different places, and while our individual stories are unique, they share common elements. Being Irish and an immigrant, I too often heard stories of the Irish immigrants who came to America to make new lives for themselves. Yet, much like the reaction to many immigrants arriving today, they were accused of being lazy, unruly, and criminals whose only goal was to take jobs away from hardworking Americans.
Today, there are nearly 33 million Irish-Americans; about 10 percent of the total U.S. population. Irish-Americans are now regarded as major contributors to America’s success, but it wasn’t too long ago that they were reviled. Irish immigrants were ridiculed by politicians as well as the mainstream media and discriminated against in education and employment.
Thomas Nast, the famous 19th-century cartoonist, gained his reputation, in part, by portraying Irish immigrants as criminals, drunkards, and marauders. “Want Ads” in New York newspapers often specified that Irish need not apply. The most well-known nativist movement arose in the mid-1800s with the creation of a political party commonly known as the “Know Nothings” which blamed the Irish and Germans for social ills such as rising crime and poverty rates. The movement resulted in anti-immigrant violence during the 1840s and 1850s in New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, among other cities.
That level of scorn, discrimination, and distrust was inflicted, to varying degrees, on each successive wave of immigrants. Xenophobic rhetoric has a long history in America dating back to the late 1700s when a member of Congress argued that the nation had no more room for immigrants—an argument that has been rehashed by small-minded politicians for centuries.
Without a doubt, the question of immigration is an extremely complicated one, and there are valid points raised by those who argue for a cautious policy that carefully and efficiently vets each newcomer. However, we should all remind ourselves of a few key facts:
- We are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants. As we debate immigration policy, we must temper the rational with the humane and balance our caution with respect.
- These are people who are brave enough and determined enough—and who too often have no other choice—to confront danger and leave everything behind to try to forge a new life in America.
- Lastly, and most importantly, the history and success of America is the history of immigrants and immigration.
Despite the hardships that they faced, our forbearers persevered and created this great country. They established businesses, they became corporate leaders and elected officials, many of whom are now considered American heroes. We are all the beneficiaries of their efforts.
The issue of immigration is central to my personal experience. Though I now have the privilege of serving as president and CEO of Northwell Health, New York’s largest healthcare provider and largest private employer with a workforce of 68,000, I was born in southwest Ireland to a family of very modest means.
Like so many other “dreamers” before me, I moved to America in search of a better life. Marching down Fifth Avenue in 2017 as the grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, I could not help but think of the millions of men, women, and children who left behind homes and families for a shot at the American dream—and an opportunity to contribute to our shared history.
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