On Friday, revelers will gather and march in festive parades throughout the country to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. This tradition predates the founding of the United States and its longevity speaks to the rootedness and prominence of the country’s Irish American population.
After the Irish Famine in the 1840s spurred over 1 million Irish immigrants to the United States, St. Patrick’s Day parades became an important facet of Irish American life. The parades grew in scale during the 19th century, combining Irish pride and American patriotism. Such community cohesion was particularly important in the face of nativism and anti-Irish hostility, which was often violent and degrading.
As more Jews, Italians and Eastern Europeans arrived at the turn of the century, policymakers began to write racial and ethnic discrimination into the immigration laws to ensure white dominance. By the 1920s, when Congress imposed a highly restrictive quota system, the Irish had gone from being marginalized to being one of the most favored groups because they could lay a claim to “whiteness.” That meant they, like other Northern and Western Europeans, continued to enjoy privileged status when it came to visas.
Yet, by the 1960s, a system that excluded people based on race and ethnicity began to seem outdated and unfair. Amid other civil rights legislation, policymakers changed the immigration system to treat all countries the same. But this 1965 law required that most new immigrants would have to be sponsored by a family member who was already a U.S. citizen — something that Irish Americans saw as a form of discrimination because it placed new limitations on their access.
At the St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1968, thousands wore buttons printed with the phrase “Immigration or Die” in protest of the new law. “We’ve made this country,” said the Very Rev. Donald M. O’Callaghan, chaplain of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. “And now they say they don’t want us.”
But the protest didn’t halt the implementation of the law — and in the years that followed, U.S. immigration changed. Instead of immigrants coming primarily from Western and Northern Europe, more people came from Asia and Latin America. Irish immigration declined.
That is, until the early 1980s. As economic problems descended on Ireland, people began to emigrate. When they couldn’t get immigrant visas to the United States because they had no close family members to sponsor them, they came on temporary visas as tourists or students — and overstayed.
Deeply-rooted Irish American communities in cities like Boston and New York welcomed these new migrants who “look[ed] as American as any Bostonian,” as the Boston Globe put it in 1987. And yet, these immigrants remained fearful. The reason? They were undocumented — and concerned about the threat of deportation and other depredations, especially as the United States cracked down on those it saw as “illegal.”
But in contrast to other undocumented immigrants in the 1980s — especially Latinos — the Irish garnered public sympathy. As the Irish Voice put it, “it didn’t seem right that the Irish, who had done so much to transform America into the great nation it is today, were suffering so badly in the green card stakes.”
Undocumented Irish immigrants capitalized on this support to push for legislative change, forming the Irish Immigration Reform Movement (IIRM). They marched in parades under banners exhorting Congress to “legalize the Irish.” They spoke out bravely about what being undocumented meant for their lives — the sense of uncertainly and instability it fostered. They lobbied policymakers in Washington and raised money and awareness through dances in Irish immigrant and Irish American communities.
These efforts created momentum to change the immigration laws, notably the creation of a 1986 visa program by Rep. Brian J. Donnelly (D-Mass.) (who died just recently) that heavily favored White Europeans, and especially Irish people.
The IIRM continued to use events like the 1989 New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade to demand even more changes to help undocumented Irish immigrants by emphasizing Irish contributions to American history. And it worked, winning the IIRM and their allies access to policymakers whose families had their own European immigrant roots, and who saw the plight of the undocumented Irish immigrants as reflective of a problem with the system, not moral failure on the part of the migrants. That the Irish didn’t seem alien — that they were White and English speaking — played a role in this connection.
Yet, while Irish Americans certainly capitalized on nostalgia, whiteness and myths about past immigration, they also advocated for the importance of immigrant diversity — not only family connections — as a defining value in the broader immigration system. Such an argument served their purposes, of course, because issuing more visas to the Irish would help create immigrant “diversity” at the time.
This argument contained an unspoken, unsavory element — it resonated in part because Irish immigrants were White, and many criticized the episode as being a “veiled” move away from “current immigration source regions,” meaning Asia and Latin America, as future INS commissioner Doris Meissner would write in an op-ed at the end of 1990.
Nevertheless, the campaign fundamentally rejected zero-sum thinking about immigration, and this has proved consequential. While the Irish had set out to solve their own community’s challenges, they also didn’t slam the gates on others and their framing of the debate opened up new migration opportunities. The Immigration Act of 1990 created a Diversity Visa program — one with a broader scope, open to countries all over the world. Congress didn’t subtract these visas from other categories either. They just added 55,000 visas to the annual numbers (later reduced to 50,000) and notably, African immigrants became major beneficiaries.
Despite such policy successes, hostility toward immigrants has once again soared since the early 1990s. Our policies make more people deportable, limit access to relief and subject many immigrants to detention. Policies at the border prevent people in need from seeking asylum.
While these policies overwhelmingly target people of color, Irish immigrants have also come up against these restrictions again. In 2006, they revived the call to “legalize the Irish” during debates about immigration policy on Capitol Hill. But Congress failed to act. And a decade later in 2017, newspapers reported on a community of some 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants, terrified of being deported by the Trump administration. All they wanted, the Irish prime minister Enda Kenny said in a St. Patrick’s Day visit to Washington, “is the opportunity to be free.”
It’s true of all immigrants, as this year’s St. Patrick’s Day revelers should realize. Irish American pride is at the heart of the parade tradition — and immigration is a deeply rooted part of that history. Sympathy for the Irish once opened up meaningful access to others around the world to come to the United States. Perhaps it can again.