The Irish were the Syrian refugees of the 19th Century, unclean, hated, foreign, “the other.”
Donald Trump would have banned them. They fit his modern description perfectly of people of little use to the US -- people to fear. The Irish were just as 'dirty' and tainted in their day. They were portrayed as pigs, apes, drunks, fools run by their priests, with a strange religion that threatened the natural order.
If you spend any time studying England and the world’s response to the Great Hunger in Ireland in the 19th century, you’ll be struck by the moralizing, the finger pointing and at worst the cold indifference -- not unlike the Trump dark vision today.
There is no doubt that Trump would have demonized the Irish fleeing the famine and turned back the antecedents of men like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, the father of Henry Ford and the father of Eugene O'Neill among millions of others. Where would America be without them?
Back then like Trump's animosity to immigrants today it wasn’t enough that a potato crop had failed. Irish people were then scolded for their dependency on it. Pushed to the margins, cheated of their inheritance, they had had all their land stolen and were then blamed for the theft.
The Syrian refugees are being blamed for George Bush invading Iraq which set off the entire tempest. Syria was a self governing paradise compared to what it is now. Once again we fail to see the mote in our own eye.
The Irish were dying on coffin ships and the Syrians died on the equivalent of Famine coffin ships. The Irish who made it were never turned away. Otherwise as an ethnic group we would not exist. How many future geniuses are we missing like Steve Jobs, son of a Syrian immigrant? Persecuted at home and unwelcome where they landed, I see a little of us in them. I see frightened families in search of refuge.
I see human misery making an appeal to human compassion. The response has been reassuring or reprehensible depending on where those fugitives landed.
But what would have happened to us in the 19th century if the United States had taken the hardline on immigration that many European nations and America under Donald Trump wants to enact now?
How would our emaciated Irish forebears have fared under the so-called “extreme vetting” that Trump has just proposed? Trump has vowed to build a wall on the Mexican border and has promised a total ban on Muslims from seven countries entering the U.S. He’s also threatened to suspend all immigration from countries with a history of spawning terrorists, a proposal that he acted on this week.
The 19th century Irish wouldn't gotten through his “extreme vetting.” Most likely we would have been subject to a total ban.
Google cofounder Sergey Brin at SFO protest: "I'm here because I'm a refugee." (Photo from Matt Kang/Forbes) pic.twitter.com/GwhsSwDPLT— Ryan Mac (@RMac18) January 29, 2017
That's because at the time the Irish were deeply unpopular here in America. We were seen as dependent, priest-ridden, given to addictions of all kinds and wholly untrustworthy. We would never have gotten past a president who had singled us out for special opprobrium the way the nativist hordes on the New York streets once did.
The Irish who are still coming here now can quickly attest to the difficulties of the immigration program, as well as the expense and the years it takes to process. If Trump is serious about increasing the “extreme vetting” of intending immigrants then the gears of the whole process will slow dramatically, affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions, including us.
In 19th century America gave a shot at a new life to a long suffering people who rewarded that generosity by enriching their adopted homeland economically, socially and politically. That's a journey we should always support. The hallmark of freedom is generosity, not fear, after all. Trump is only selling fear.