Arizona lawmaker John Kavanagh -- who was actually born in Queens -- was recently challenged by a protester.
Kavanagh, a former Port Authority police officer, was a major force behind the controversial law which allows Arizona police officers to question people who might be in the U.S. illegally.
Quite a few folks believe this is a law which, at best, makes racial or ethnic profiling legal and, at worst, is anti-immigrant.
So, a protester asked Kavanagh, where did your people come from?
“Ireland and Germany,” Kavanagh was quoted as saying. “But legally.”
Perhaps a deeper, follow-up question was in order -- should Irish Americans who have been in the U.S. several generations (such as John Kavanagh) sympathize with current immigrants?
This leads us to a dirty little secret among a sizeable number of Irish Americans. For decades, many have embraced their own immigrant ties while sneering at more recent immigrants.
Is this a majority of Irish Americans? Probably not. And they should not make us forget the passionate Irish Americans who work tirelessly to make sure a new generation of immigrants enjoys the same access to opportunity that earlier immigrants had.
However, for many Irish Americans, it’s not hard to find an uncle or cousin or aunt who has particularly passionate opposition to America’s current immigration situation.
If you’re lucky enough, you might here an anti-immigrant rant at, say, a St. Patrick’s Day party. Which will get your head spinning faster than Jameson.
One line of reasoning you often hear is similar to the argument made by Kavanagh. The past waves of Irish came here legally, whereas so many of today’s immigrants -- including those targeted by the controversial
Arizona law -- are here illegally.
Well, it’s not hard to oppose illegal immigration. Of course, you might argue that if the immigration system were comprehensively overhauled, we might not have so many illegal immigrants in this country right now.
But back to the Irish, there is this problem -- the deeper into the past you go, it’s harder and harder to say who, exactly was legal and who was not.
Even if your grandparents proudly displayed their Ellis Island papers on their living room wall next to their portrait of JFK, who’s to say there wasn’t an uncle or cousin or aunt somewhere who might have entered through the back door? Or, for that matter, who simply jumped the (Canadian) border?
America, after all, didn’t have any sort of national immigration policy until the 1870s. Incidentally, one of the first national directives was to limit the number of Chinese laborers coming to the West.
Why? Well, for one thing, the Chinese were taking a lot of jobs that Irish immigrants had been performing.
A cynic might say that Kavanagh and those anti-Chinese Irish laborers share a motto, “I got mine, you get yours. Somewhere else!”
But the immigration debate is already rife with cynicism. Irish Americans such as Kavanagh make arguments about not only the legality of current immigrants, but the crime which they supposedly spur.
Again, no group was seen as more congenitally criminal than the Irish. But that’s the past.
Today, we have laws that deal with criminals no matter where they come from. And, just as an Irish criminal was likely to be arrested by a police officer named Flanagan or O’Shaughnessy, an immigrant suspect in Arizona today should not be surprised if he is booked by a cop named Garcia or Gonzalez.
So what’s the deal? Are the Irish and Mexicans inclined to criminality or law enforcement?
To answer an earlier question -- I think today’s Irish Americans should see today’s immigrants as the latest arrivals in a long line of folks simply seeking better lives. The Irish should, indeed, have sympathy for today’s immigrants.
No, of course not the criminals or the terrorists. But then again, what would the Irish know about criminals or terrorists?
(Contact [email protected] or facebook.com/tomdeignan)