White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly wants you to know that he does not think most immigrants who come to this country illegally are bad people. His concern, as he explained it in an interview with National Public Radio on Thursday, is that they are “overwhelmingly rural people,” with little education. “They’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States into our modern society,” he said.
It would be disturbing to hear any person in a position of trust express such lack of regard for the fundamental values that have made this country what it is. But in Kelly’s case, it was particularly egregious because … well, because his name is Kelly.
His ancestors came from Ireland, as mine did. He grew up on Bigelow Street in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston, where reminders of his heritage — and of the opportunities made possible by his immigrant forebears — would have been everywhere he looked.
The Irish came to America with plenty of assimilation challenges of their own. They had mostly lived in rural areas, which made it difficult for them to adjust to the big cities in which they found themselves. They had little education. As they were fleeing seven years of famine, few had been able to scrape together more than the fare to get them on the boat over. They arrived hungry and sick after a journey that lasted four weeks. They were seen as lazy and shiftless. In the 1850s, 70 percent of charity recipients in New York City were Irish.
They were hated for their religion as well. In Boston, posters proclaimed: “All Catholics and all persons who favor the Catholic Church are … vile imposters, liars, villains, and cowardly cutthroats.” Some back then might have said that when Ireland sent its people, they were not sending their best.
That wave of Irish immigration arrival sparked a nativist backlash, and even a new political party, The Know-Nothings. This was no mere fringe movement, as Smithsonian Magazine has noted:
At its height in the 1850s, the Know Nothing party, originally called the American Party, included more than 100 elected congressmen, eight governors, a controlling share of half-a-dozen state legislatures from Massachusetts to California, and thousands of local politicians. Party members supported deportation of foreign beggars and criminals; a 21-year naturalization period for immigrants; mandatory Bible reading in schools; and the elimination of all Catholics from public office. They wanted to restore their vision of what America should look like with temperance, Protestantism, self-reliance, with American nationality and work ethic enshrined as the nation’s highest values.
Does all that sound familiar? There are still Know-Nothings among us. They are the people who forget their own history.