A friend from Ramsey (NJ), Tom Franklin, is a professor at Montclair State University. He posted two photos on Instagram last week of each of his grandparents and in the caption told their stories of coming to the United States as immigrants, of his fond memories of them, and the positive impact they made on his life and American life. From this I learned that with immigration at the forefront of national conversation, students at Montclair State University’s School of Communication and Media were launching a comprehensive transmedia project about the immigrant experience this week. He posted this article about it: How Montclair State University students used social media and collaboration to tell immigration stories.
I shared my story. Not my parents’, grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ story, but mine. I am white. I don’t speak with an accent (although some outside Northern New Jersey might disagree). I don’t appear to be “foreign” in any way. Yet, I am an immigrant. I was born in Ireland, came here when I was 2 years old and became a citizen when I was 5.
There are very few Americans (only about 2% of the population) that claim to be Native American/Alaskan. That means that the rest of us – or 98% of Americans – came from or are descendants of someone who came from someplace else. While this county has a long history of immigration, it also has a history of discriminating against immigrants. My (adoptive) grandparents were met with anti-Irish sentiment when they immigrated from Ireland at the beginning of the 20th Century.
Last year, a Detroit man created the “No Irish Pub” and refused to serve anyone if they were Irish or simply wearing green to celebrate the holiday. The experiment showed “Americans” what it was like to feel the effects of discrimination based on ethnicity that seems so far removed from the Irish today. Read about it and watch the video documenting it here.
Through the first half of American history “illegal immigration” didn’t exist because there were no immigration laws to break. The first immigration law in 1882 – rooted in fear and discrimination – banned Chinese immigrants.
“In 1921, the U.S. passed the Emergency Quota Act, which was designed to prevent a stream of Jews fleeing persecution from immigrating to the United States. For the first time in our history, we put caps on the number of people who could immigrate. And we developed a formula that put a quota on how many people from any country could come to the U.S. based on how many people from that country already lived here: three percent. It gave Western Europeans, who were predominately white, a distinct advantage when attempting to immigrate here.” (Stribley, R. “The Invention of Illegal Immigration,” March 2019. Medium)
What we are seeing today is no different. Fear mongering politicians use an “invasion” metaphor when no such thing is taking place. While the current administration is looking to restrict immigration at our southern border, I read an article in the New York Times last week about how they are also increasing the number of visas that can be issued for immigrant workers. Go figure.
My father’s family immigrated from Ireland to the South Bronx. They lived on 146th Street between Wilson and Brook in what is now known as Mott Haven. It’s in the poorest congressional district in the United States. When I was a kid, my father didn’t go back to the old neighborhood except for the occasional Yankees game. He was disappointed in the way the place had “changed.”
When I worked for a health and human services agency in New York City a decade ago, I had the opportunity to spend time in my dad’s old Irish neighborhood of the 1920s and 30s. Now it was predominately African. And in working there with the staff of our Early Head Start program, I realized that the neighborhood hadn’t changed as much as he thought it did. It was inhabited now, as it was then, by poor, working, immigrant families, trying to make it on their first stop in a new world. It always has and always will be that way.