During the 1800s, over a million fled from Ireland to the United States to find a better life.
Many of the Irish who arrived were under-skilled for the American workforce and began to populate port cities working labor intensive jobs. They faced stereotypes and persecution simply because of who they were: different.
They were depicted as apes, drunks and baboons, their religion was mocked. Outlandish rumors such as they were sent to prepare the way for the pope to take over America circulated.. They were attacked by mobs known as the "Know-Nothings", the Ku Klux Klan of the era.
They came to the country and were called outcasts. Yet, in the following decades and centuries they would go on to fill the highest ranks in business, politics, arts, the army and more. They gave back, built, and furthered a society that gave them a chance at life and we are all the better for it.
Today another group faces a similar crisis and Irish Americans must ensure that America lives up to our history as an immigrant nation.
Most of us have an immigrant story. That is to say that most of us have come to America from somewhere else and it should affect how we see the world around us.
At this moment, millions of families are fighting for their lives in Syria, or trying to begin a new life in another country. On the macro-level, we face a humanitarian crisis where over 19 million people around the globe are displaced and looking for a place to live safely.
Those Syrians who are fleeing leave behind communities where they were ruthlessly targeted by violence and terrorism – where hundreds of thousands of their neighbors have been killed. These families aren’t seeking something as lofty as “the American Dream,” they’re searching for something more basic: safety for the ones they love.
Refusing to understand that and to take action would be turning our backs on our own immigrant heritage. As Irish Americans, we have the unique understanding that the immigrant experience is not an easy one.
With this unique understanding, we have a very real moral responsibility to give aid to those seeking refuge and safety, because this is who we are as a nation.
The Obama Administration has given $4.5 billion in aid to assist in this humanitarian crisis and has raised the number of accepted refugees to 100,000 on an annual basis for the next two years.
While this is critical aid and represents our collective commitment as a nation, we all can do more as individuals to help these refugees.
There are opportunities around the country to volunteer with the critical organizations that are working to integrate these refugees into their new country. Local communities can join the Building Welcoming Communities Campaign to ensure that refugees are integrated and can give back to the US.
However, the most important thing we can do as Irish Americans is to lift up the stories of these immigrants and share how our story and theirs are intimately linked.
America’s greatest strength is our immigrant heritage. Our unique ability to solve the complex problems that have faced our nation is only possible because of the diversity of viewpoint brought about by this heritage. This moment should not be any different.
Whether you’re an Irish American, or an immigrant of another stripe, we all have a responsibility to ensure that our nation lives up our founding principles. The reality is, we wouldn’t be here without them.
John McCarthy is Vice President of Irish American Democrats and a columnist with National Catholic Reporter.