|Republican Peggy Noonan|
A few weeks back, when an Irish-born journalist (and we use that term loosely) named Neil Munro heckled President Obama’s immigration policy during a press conference, many people pointed out the obvious irony. Here was an immigrant suggesting that the president get tough with immigrants.
To most people, this made Munro a hypocrite. But at least it was clear where he stood.
And now that President Obama has offered a path to citizenship for certain children of illegal immigrants, his position is fairly clear also.
As for the other side, that’s a lot more complicated.
Some Republicans grasp that immigration is a boon to at least some state economies. Some sentimentalize immigrants, while others (I’m thinking Mitt Romney here) are flummoxed to the point of silence.
Which is at least better than echoing the hard-right, anti-immigrant Republican line which was present at the party’s founding.
After all, the party of Lincoln was also the party of anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiment in the mid-19th Century.
I’m not demonizing conservatives here. Former Reagan White House operative and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan – whose name is as Hibernian as it gets - penned a fine column celebrating the immigrant spirit to mark Independence Day last week.
“The old hatreds,” Noonan wrote. “They dissipate here. In Ireland, Catholics and Protestants could be at each other’s throats for centuries, but the minute they moved here they were in the Kiwanis Club together.”
Again, kudos to Noonan for celebrating America’s immigrant heritage, and perhaps upsetting some fellow conservatives. But really?
“The minute” Irish Catholics and Protestants came to America things were just awesome and cool? I’m not Peggy Noonan for a scholarly dissertation on, say, the hanging of Irish Catholics such as Goody Glover in the 17th century colonies, or the 1870s riots that lefts dozens of Catholics and Protestants dead on the streets of New York.
But a little realism never hurt anybody, even on the Fourth of July.
Noonan’s sentimental approach to immigration is something to which Irish Americans are particularly prone. There is so much emphasis put on the contribution of the well-behaved immigrants of the past, there is an implication that today’s immigrants are, well, different.
Prior to 9/11, it was believed by some that today’s immigrants were simply not as hard-working, or as patriotic, or were gang members, or came here for the welfare benefits. And even if they were hard-working, that was a problem because they were taking jobs, or were simply illegal, which is a fairly unambiguous term.
All the more so in a post-9/11 world where illegal immigrants can be out to kill us all. Nevertheless, there remains a deep, scary and downright un-American strain of nativism out there in America.
And being sentimental or selective about immigration is not much better than being outright hostile to it. Back in 2006, none other than Noonan wrote this, “There are a variety of things driving American anxiety about illegal immigration and we all know them -- economic arguments, the danger of porous borders in the age of terrorism, with anyone able to come in. But there's another thing.
“(We) are not assimilating our immigrants patriotically. And if you don't do that, you'll lose it all. We used to do it. We loved our country with full-throated love, we had no ambivalence.”
Does it really need to be pointed out that, back in the good old days, there was massive ambivalence on the sides of both native-born Americans and immigrants?
We fought not one but two wars against a nation which gave us millions of immigrants (Germany) and we held members of two large immigrant groups (Japanese and Italians) in detention camps during World War II. Meanwhile, how do you think a lot of Americans felt about Ireland being diplomatically neutral during World War II?
All of this is simply meant to point out that immigration has always been vexing.
For now, we know where Obama and the Democrats stand. And even if they’re just after votes, isn’t that partly what our system is all about?
Currently, the Republican Party is made up of historical revisionist sentimentalists like Noonan, neo-nativists like Munro, and confused bumblers like Romney.
By November, will the real GOP stand up?(Contact “Sidewalks” at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/tomdeignan)