After all these years in America, I still feel like an immigrant. Though I proudly hold American citizenship, it is other immigrants that I most readily identify with.  “Where are you from?” I ask waiters and cab drivers, even a woman on the subway (we were so caught up in our chat about how “there is no place in the world like New York City” that I missed my stop). 

The immigrant contribution to America is especially on my mind as the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War is being commemorated at every turn.

Other immigrants enlisted, but no other ethnic group is so closely linked to the Civil War as the Irish. As many as 200,000 soldiers in the Union Army, including seven generals, were born in Ireland. (When you consider the small size of our island, practically every family must have had a son in the Union army.)

And surely the Irish who survived the Famine only to end up fighting in the Civil War must have thought they were in hell – 600,00 soldiers dead and as many maimed for life.

The first casualty was an Irishman, Private Daniel Hough from my home county of Tipperary. Born in 1825, Hough immigrated to America and enlisted in the Union Army in October 1849. He was killed in the attack on Fort Sumter (a cannon he was loading exploded) on April 12, 1861, the day that marked the start of the four-year war.

“When anything absurd, forlorn, or desperate was to be attempted, the Irish Brigade was called upon,” Civil War correspondent George Alfred Townsend noted.

It’s a moot point to say that the Irish were not highly regarded as an immigrant group before the Civil War, but as Matthew Brennan, writing on the Irish Brigade in this issue, concludes, “With their bold courage they made a name that was carved so deeply into the American heart that there would never again be a question as to whether the Irish had the right to call themselves ‘Americans.’”

The Irish continued to serve with distinction in America’s military, and have the proud record of holding more medal of honor citations than any other ethnic group.

Which brings me to the thorny subject of immigration today. As the debate rages on about the undocumented, I find that my immigrant past plays a continuous influence on who I am. My loyalty is to America, but part of my history is colored by my experience as an immigrant, and my sympathy lies with the undocumented. Given a chance, I believe many of those undocumented Mexicans, Irish, and others would prove their loyalty if they were allowed to enlist in the U.S. Army as a path to eventual citizenship.

America’s closed-door policy on immigration is also particularly troubling now as more and more young Irish people are forced to leave Ireland. We had hoped that immigration would skip a generation in my family, but not so. On Easter Monday, my niece Aoife left from the very same farm that I left years ago, except her journey will not end in New York, much as she would love to come here, but very far away in New Zealand.

I have a dream that some hero will step up to the plate – someone of the ilk of Brian Donnelly or Bruce Morrison who were able to procure visas for the Irish in the past – to make a case for preference visas for Irish-born with family already here. Let’s say 200,000 visas (in honor of those 200,000 Irish-born who fought so gallantly and died for the United States of America) extended over a four-year Civil War commemorative period.

Yes, I know that would be showing favoritism, but given the disproportionate contribution that the Irish have made to America, I think it would be appropriate. (In 2009, of over a million green cards issued only 1,637, went to the Irish). Australia and Canada are already seeing the benefits of  the influx of Ireland’s young, highly educated workers. And as in the past, America would benefit if it were to open the door just a crack, and let some more of our people in.

CLICK HERE for more about young people leaving Ireland today: Portraits of the Irish Leaving Home