On American Immigrants: A letter to families like mine

Irish immigrants to America, around the turn of the 20th century.

I’m not entirely sure when my family came to this country. Some came before the potato famine; I imagine some came after. We’ve been here long enough that the details fade into a fog, someone’s genealogy project, rarely kitchen table stories.

Hogertys, Crowleys, Feeneys, and even a Farrell (on my dad’s side) came here when home became so dangerous that an Atlantic journey to an unfamiliar, unwelcoming country seemed not just a better option, but the only option.

America did not see us as white when we came here. Our customs were strange, our religion threatening. We might have been spies, helping the Pope take over this country. We weren’t.

We came here trying to work, but no Irish needed apply. Perhaps we lived in New York tenements once, but the ancestors my family claims made it out to the Midwest. We started businesses — bars and mills whose signs still adorn our kitchen walls, whose profits lodged us safely in the middle class.

We did not seem white then, but in time America absorbed us, so that walking down the street today my maternal Irishness is indistinguishable from my paternal Englishness, from the Italianness of my neighbors or the Germanness I carry too, except insofar as I choose to distinguish it.

I see my community constantly trying to distinguish ourselves. Irish sayings on key chains, Irish knit sweaters and scarves, flags on our doorsteps, festivals and dancing, even the occasional kilt — marking ourselves as different, something more than American. I do this too, from my Claddagh ring to my reluctant Catholicism, wondering how much of my feelings reflect true membership in a meaningful culture, and how much they exist to mark myself as anything other than an average, white, middle-class Midwestern American.

I hear the challenges from my family when I question this participation. When I dabble in the far more progressive Episcopal church, someone says:

“Those people who let our ancestors starve?”

(I may be half-English through my dad’s side, but ethnicity is a game of memory, not biology, and suffering potato farmers on the Emerald Isle can be recalled whenever they are most convenient.) No one claims to mean these things seriously, but they are said in earnest before they are disavowed.

In the wake of the President’s executive action this week, I think I must remind my family and families like mine that we do not get to choose what parts of our history we embrace.

Every family like mine, who was welcomed into this country but cannot find the courage to welcome others, has betrayed the suffering and striving of the very ancestors they claim to celebrate.

Every bit of wealth, or security, or cultural pride expressed without retribution are ill-gotten gains if we sit comfortably in the middle class while the images of our grandparents are detained in US airports or left to drown on crowded ships.

Every Irish flag we wave is a slap in the face to our relatives who truly suffered, if we can stomach the suffering of refugees from civil war and mumble something about “security.”

If we want to claim our ancestry as something special, something to be proud of, we must take on its obligations too. Our starving ancestors are not a license to differentiate our identity only when it is convenient. They endow us with an obligation to every refugee now prevented from entering this country, every person whose community has been decimated, whose home no longer exists, whose government has turned against them, who has been promised safe refuge under a Constitution we claim to revere and then been told we have shut the door without warning.

If you truly believe that Muslim refugees pose a threat to our national security (despite the multi-year vetting procedures already in place), you should think twice before flying that Irish flag or flaunting your immigrant pride. If you do believe that this action is wrong, get your ass out there and do something, dammit. Not to do so betrays our ancestry and reveals our Irish pride as a sham.

March in the streets for justice, not just St. Patrick’s Day. Leverage your position for action — your position as business leaders, community leaders, church leaders, stable and respected members of the middle class, people whose objections are taken seriously and not dismissed as baseless or radical or racialized anger. We used to run political machines — you can pick up the phone and call your senator.

If you believe the President’s action is wrong, do not think that sitting at home and holding that opinion is enough. I have made that mistake and regretted it and will not make it again. Our silence is our tacit consent.

My ancestors did not starve and suffer and give up their homeland for us to half-ass our Irishness through public displays and personal pride while refugees in the thousands are turned away by our government. My immigrant ancestors survived persecution and fled starvation and defied fear to build the very middle-class security you now refuse to extend.

Nobody gets to take their name in vain.