The day after the election I got into a taxi and the driver immediately wanted to talk.
“Big night, last night,” he volunteered.
“Yep,” I replied as we waited for the light to change,
“I wonder what will happen?” he mused. I knew what he was talking about, but said nothing. The light was taking its time. “I wonder what will happen to him?” He pointed out the right-hand window to a man selling flowers by the train station. “He’s illegal.” The light changed and I headed for home.
So now, it all comes down to this. A middle-aged illegal immigrant Hispanic man trying to make it in America by selling rush-hour flowers at the train station.
The world is watching that man—and how America will handle him. Will President Trump’s words about rounding up illegal immigrants have any teeth in them or will he just forget all about it as politicians have been known to do?
Already the ugliness has begun. There are reports of a student handing out “deportation” letters to minority classmates in California; a Massachusetts postal worker shouted “This is Trump Land” at a Hispanic man; and a Muslim student was told to remove her hijab on a Queens, NY bus. It seems like that in a few short days America has gone from the home of the brave to the land of the bigoted paranoid.
On January 21, 2017, will the round-up begin? Will illegal aliens be arrested and put into trucks and driven away? Will they be “resettled” like the Japanese-Americans of World War II, as they await deportation? Will the government ask regular citizens for help in rounding them up? Will America turn into some hideous carbon copy of Vichy France as we substitute “illegal immigrant” for “Jew”? Will the new American greeting be: “Papers, please”?
Whatever happens, the world is watching us.
During the salacious campaign, Trump described the United States of America as a hideous place overrun by illegal immigrants and terrorists waiting to strike. Our economy was on the verge of collapse and our inner-cities were nothing short of hell holes.
Apparently, much of the American electorate agreed with him.
Of course, outside the United States, America is viewed as the Shining Light on the Hill. The quintessential democracy that all other democracies are modeled on.
And unless you are speaking Navajo or Cherokee or Cree or some other Native American language, you are either an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant. Every American came from somewhere else, either legally or illegally.
I think this is why the question of immigration is such an important topic to the Irish. Immigration to America—either legally or illegally—has touched every Irish family since the time of the Famine.
Round-Up the Usual Illegal Suspects…or Maybe Not
I am an immigrant, my parents were immigrants, my brother and sisters are immigrants. All my aunts and uncles were immigrants. I assume that every one of them was legal, but they came in tough times—in times of revolution and Depression—so I really don’t know.
My Uncle Frank Kavanagh went from being an IRA gunman on-the-run in 1920 Dublin to being a New Yorker by 1921. I have always thought that maybe his first glimpse of the Port of New York was peeking out of the hold of a ship where he was a stowaway. Whatever his immigrant status, Uncle Frank did okay for himself and America, serving in the United States Merchant Marine during World War II and spending three years in a Japanese POW camp when his ship was torpedoed. Ironically, he was liberated by the British, whom he hated.
Since immigration is such a hot topic I decided to ask several prominent Irish-Americans what they think Trump will do with the lightning rod he rode down an escalator and straight into the White House: What will President Trump do with 11 million illegal immigrants?
Timothy Egan is the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times and author of the bestselling "The Immortal Irishman," his biography of Irish revolutionary and American Civil War general, Thomas Francis Meagher. The paternal side of Egan’s family found shelter in America during the famine and the maternal side arrived in the 1870s.
He doesn’t put much faith in Trump’s threats against illegal immigrants. “I think it’s a ruse,” he told me. “I don’t think he’ll put a police state in place and start rounding up 11-million people. It’s a logistical impossibility, and most people would be appalled at the presence of a police state in their neighborhoods. But he will start deportation and harassment of some immigrants. Much of this will be for the cameras.”
Malachy McCourt—author of the bestselling "A Monk Swimming," actor, and multi-tasking gadfly—was born in Brooklyn, like his brother Frank, but grew up in Limerick City. His mother, the eponymous Angela of literary fame, and brothers Mike and Alphie, were immigrants, following the two American-born brothers back to New York.
He too, doesn’t take Trump’s words seriously. “He will avoid the problem completely for his term,” he says bluntly. “He will babble about it, but no action.”
Pete Hamill’s mother and father found refuge in Brooklyn after fleeing an anti-Catholic pogrom in Belfast in the 1920s. Hamill has written many books including his memoir, "A Drinking Life," and the novels "Snow in August" and "Forever."
When asked how it would turn out if Trump decided to do a general round-up Hamill replied: “Badly. Rounding up almost twice the number of those who died in the Shoah, including the millions of American children of illegals. Not all of the adults are from Mexico, although they might have come through Mexico from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, etc. The Wall would cost millions, but why should Mexico pay for it? Will the U.S. shoot its way across the border into Mexico, effectively declaring war? Trump, with his four deferments during Vietnam, probably knows about war from movies. Certainly, not experience. Would he use the hydrogen bomb on Mexico City? Would he opt for carpet bombing on Acapulco, Cancun, or the border cities? Maybe...”
Peter Quinn’s family started arriving in the United States during the Famine. His family lived in St. Brigid’s Parish—“The Famine Church”—in what is now known as the East Village. His father went on to become a United States Congressman representing the Bronx. The son followed in his father’s political footsteps, acting as a speechwriter for New York governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo. He has written five books including "Banished Children of Eve," the best book ever written about the Irish in the New York Civil War riots of 1863.
The New Dealer in Quinn’s DNA forces him to cast a wary eye on Trump and what he has promised his supporters: “No president has ever deported more illegal immigrants than Barack Obama,” he says.
“Trump will go after illegals with criminal records, but it’s a logistical impossibility to deport 11-million people. He’s got to look tough to his supporters. How that carries out in actual fact remains to be seen. And what about that ‘great big beautiful wall that Mexico is going to pay for’? (It’s going to cost an estimated $38 billion.) I can’t wait to see how he finesses that one. Whatever he does, Trump’s rhetoric puts him firmly within the Know-Nothing anti-immigrant movement that has waxed and waned through our history. I’ve no doubt that were he alive in the 1840s he would have been outspoken in his opposition to admitting impoverished, illiterate famine-era immigrants like my great-grandparents.”
Terry Golway’s Irish roots are hard to pin down. He is unsure how or when the Golways got to Staten Island, but his maternal side traces its Irish roots to the early 20th century. His grandfather Charlie Kerrigan, from Bundoran, County Donegal, served his new country in the legendary Fighting 69th Regiment. Golway, a senior editor at PoliticoNewYork, is the author of the definitive biography of the great American Fenian John Devoy, "Irish Rebel," as well as a history of New York’s Tammany Hall, "Machine Made."
Like the others he is not overwhelmed by Trump’s logic on illegals. “Trump’s rhetoric about deporting 11-million illegals reminds me of the phrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to describe Bill Clinton’s promises to reform welfare. He called it ‘boob bait for Bubba.’ This is pretty much the same thing—pandering to the worst instincts of blue-collar America simply for political gain.”
A Nation of Snitches?
President John F. Kennedy, a grandchild of Irish immigrants, once wrote a book called "A Nation of Immigrants." One wonders what would happen if President Trump—a man known for his uninhibited and outrageous behavior—asked Americans to help him round up illegals. Would America go from being a nation of immigrants to a nation of snitches? The first reaction would be “it can’t happen here!” But it can happen anywhere. There is nothing worse than a nation in fear, especially when they believe the big lie.
“Yes,” says Peter Quinn, “it can happen here, especially if there’s a mass terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11. The president-elect has already vowed to reinstate torture as a means of interrogation. Anything is possible. But I think—hope—it’s unlikely. If they’re true to their principles, conservatives would be as opposed as liberals.”
“The ‘Papers, please’ law was tried in Arizona, and most of it was thrown out by the courts,” Tim Egan reminds us. “We have to count on the durable strength of the Constitution to save us here.”
“No, we will not become a police state” declares Malachy McCourt. “Civil liberties are entrenched in our bones and will not be denied.”
Pete Hamill takes a more sinister view: “Yes, if you are too brown, black, or are heard playing Agustin Lara music or Luis Miguel too loud in your house. If you root for Latinos in ballgames or movie houses. If your name ends in a vowel.”
Bottom Line Commerce—Who Will Pick Our Lettuce?
Hollywood song-and-dance man George Murphy went on to become a Republican United States Senator from California. He is most famous for saying—although the quote is often erroneously attributed to Ronald Reagan—that Mexicans make wonderful farm workers because they were “built close to the ground.” One wonders what Murphy’s ditch-digging Irish ancestors might think about that quote.
But this highlights another dilemma with America’s illegals. They are often blamed for taking from society without giving, but that’s simply not true. Taxes are deducted from their salaries. They pay taxes on goods purchased, they pay Social Security taxes without ever getting Social Security, and they do something that tough-talking Americans simply refuse to do—they work the fields, in some cases, for pennies. And America without illegals in the fields could be facing a massive economic downturn which would be felt very quickly at the supermarket. Think about how much the supermarket inflation would be if produce were to rot in the fields for lack of illegals to pick them.
“Remember,” Golway sagaciously reminds us, “the business base of the Republican Party—the free traders, the readers of the Wall Street Journal—are pro-immigration, not because they are humanitarians, but because they know it drives down the price of labor. No policy that is based on deportation will succeed. And no attempt to achieve rational immigration policy will succeed unless Trump can figure out how to penalize businesses that rely on (and exploit) undocumented workers. Liberals did not create the market for illegal immigration. Business owners, pride of our nation, did.”
“Thousands of restaurants will be shut for lack of human kitchen help,” opines Hamill. “Fat white guy Trump voters are unlikely to turn into pickers of fruit. Trump himself would not make a pimple on the ass of a hard-working Mexican.”
States like Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama have tried to threaten illegals with undocumented immigrant laws. Alabama passed HB 56 in 2011. It was an unmitigated disaster. One of the provisions of the law allowed law enforcement to arrest undocumented aliens when they were pulled over for a motor vehicle infractions. Two of the first to be picked up were a German executive with Mercedes-Benz and a Japanese Honda worker. Needless to say, the state had embarrassed two of its biggest employers. Because of HB 56 Hispanics stopped sending their children to school. They stopped talking to the authorities, making policing that much more difficult. And, in an effort to get some kind of ID, they turned the DMV into a living hell. It took only seven months for the Alabama state legislature to pass a fresh round of revisions. The state also ended up paying $350,000 to cover opponents’ legal fees.
I wonder if Donald Trump ever heard of HB 56?
Could President Trump Bring About Immigration Reform?
Although the GOP won an electoral victory on November 8th, for the fourth time in five presidential elections they lost the popular vote. There are dire warning signs on the horizon for the GOP. It can be put very simply—the day of the powerful Hispanic voter is near.
You don’t think so? Just look at the state of Nevada. In the time of Reagan, it was the reddest of the red states. On election day, they voted in the first female Latina senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, and three of their four congressional districts are now Democratic. One state over in Arizona, look at Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the bane of Hispanics—legal and illegal. The sheriff is currently unemployed, voted out by the people he has been terrorizing for the last 23 years. The handwriting is on the wall. The New York Times reports that “Latinos are poised to become a majority in Arizona by 2030.”
With all of Trump’s boasts and threats one possibility could happen that no one even thought possible—immigration reform. This might be the perfect time for the GOP to get this monkey off their backs—if their base will allow.
Is a new comprehensive immigration policy possible during the administration of the anti-immigrant president?
“The good news, in my view, is that Trump has no core beliefs,” said Peter Quinn. “He was for gay marriage, then against it, pro-choice now pro-life, for the Iraq war then against, etc. But he’s not a fool. Given his planetary-sized ego, he must want to succeed as president. He lost the popular vote. He has to make some attempt to deal with the strong opposition he faces. His experience brokering real estate schemes and avoiding bankruptcy must have instilled certain bargaining skills. If he has a philosophy it pretty much boils down to ‘Let’s make a deal.’ If not consensus, maybe he can help reach a compromise that has the support of a workable majority.”
“There will be a consensus,” thinks McCourt. “No one will be satisfied, but it will shut everyone one up for the duration.”
“It could start a dialogue—by forcing the issue,” hopes Tim Egan. “And then there’d be a real gut check—what are we really about?”
Wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony that under the anti-immigrant president we got immigration reform? Stay tuned.
What’s Trump’s Immigration Endgame?
The big question is: Does Trump have a plan?
Most likely he does not, because that’s his modus operandi. He tends to make things up as he goes along. It may work for a home chef, but it will not work for a politician in this Washington climate. He thinks he will go to Washington and wave his gold-plated magic wand and 11-million undocumented aliens will disappear. It ain’t going to happen. Even if laws are passed, it will eventually come down to the people and how they view these laws—how they either support, ignore or break them. [For historical context check out the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, commonly known as Prohibition. Also, check out the 21st Amendment to the Constitution which repealed Prohibition. Lesson? Bad and unenforceable laws don’t work and are not supported by citizens.] The people, ultimately, will be the final arbitrator.
“Even brilliant humans are powerless when faced with bureaucracy,” says Malachy McCourt. “And though Trump has rodent cunning, but he is oddly stupid so as a one term acting president he may learn that he can’t win this one. It is my hope that Irish Americans will learn that the oppressor has always been of conservative power. Yes, the poet said you eventually become the thing you hate the most and many Irish do, becoming traitorous conservatives. But you must look inside yourself and decide whether to become a conservative traitor to your heritage or remain loyal to the nobility of our great liberty-loving Irishness.”
“Politically,” declares Peter Quinn, “I’m opposed to just about everything President-elect Trump stands for and supports. But he didn’t create the fear and anxiety that’s brought him to power. He’s exposed it. It’s up to the Democrats to figure out how to deal with it. So far, the only one who’s come close is Bernie Sanders. I’m impressed by the way President Obama is handling the transition, with his usual graciousness and intelligence. Instead of doing what Mitch McConnell & Co. did to him—vowing on Day One to oppose anything he proposed—Obama is asking that Trump be given a hearing. Fair enough. Given Trump’s utter lack of a governing philosophy, I feel he might find it far easier to sit down with Democratic deal makers like Chuck Schumer than right-wing ideologues like Ted Cruz. I’m not looking forward to a Trump presidency. I’m fearful about what’s ahead, not just on immigration, but on the life-or-death challenge of global warming. But history moves in swerves and turns, not straight lines. Hope springs eternal.”
Perhaps there is some kind of amazing human grace to be found in this whole conundrum. “More than anything else,” says Pete Hamill, “we have to retain our toughness, our sense of irony, our laughter. We have to honor our immigrants, thank them for all the gifts they have brought to us. Food. Music. Labor. We have to guide their children into colleges. We have to offer their old folks a seat on the #2 train, and make sure none of their infants are crying from hunger.”
Common human decency may be the answer in this most disturbing and un-American time in our history. I’ll think of America’s innate decency the next time I see this illegal immigrant selling flowers at the train station—trying, just as our Irish ancestors did so long ago, to make it in America for him and his family. What could be more courageous?
What could be more American?
*Dermot McEvoy is the author of the "The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising" and "Our Lady of Greenwich Village," now available in paperback from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at [email protected] Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook at www.facebook.com/13thApostleMcEvoy.