President Trump’s recent remark branding Haiti, El Salvador and African nations “shithole countries” has provoked reaction from people across the political spectrum. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan called the president’s comment “very unfortunate, unhelpful.” Invoking his Irish roots, Ryan went on to add that “the Irish were really looked down upon back in those days.”
Ryan’s reference to anti-Irish nativism may have been a weak criticism of the president’s racist approach to immigration. Nevertheless, it reminds us how even the president’s biggest champions, poor and working-class white ethnic communities, once were targeted by such nativist sentiments, and why they too should be concerned about conversations around “deserving and undeserving” immigrants.
Just as opponents of immigration today consider undocumented immigrants and refugees burdens on American society, nativists in the 19th century resented the inability of many Irish immigrants to support themselves financially and their dependence on public relief. Resentment toward what some considered the undeserving poor — “St. Patrick’s Vermin” — spawned unsympathetic and hostile attitudes toward needy foreigners, giving rise to a series of laws that restricted their immigration.
These laws became the foundations for American deportation policy. In fact, our entire system of immigration control is rooted in nativism against the indigent Irish that goes back to the antebellum period.
During the first half of the 19th century, New York and Massachusetts received a growing influx of poor Catholic Irish immigrants fleeing famine back home. The newcomers’ religion triggered an outburst of anti-Irish nativism in these states, but so too did their poverty. Impoverished in Ireland and sickened during the transatlantic passage, many of the Irish entered public almshouses and lunatic hospitals as paupers soon after landing.
Calling Irish paupers “leeches” who consumed public charity funds, nativist Americans quickly advocated the closure of America’s borders to indigent immigrants from Europe, especially Ireland. A nativist newspaper, invoking an Old Testament image, warned against the further entry of “offscourings of Ireland — poor, worthless hacks, who come out as paupers, to curse our land with a curse compared to which the locusts of Egypt were a blessing.” At a public almshouse, as a Massachusetts nativist put it, a lazy “Irish tramper” engaged in self-indulgence, allowed to “smoke her pipe at the expense of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
To reduce the immigration of the destitute Irish, New York and Massachusetts built upon colonial poor laws for regulating the movement of the poor. These states developed laws to restrict the arrival of destitute foreigners and to deport foreign paupers back to Europe, Canada or other U.S. states. In Massachusetts, at least 50,000 persons were removed from the state between the 1830s and the early 1880s.
State policies applied to all destitute foreigners, but it was Irish poverty that generated the principal momentum for the growth of state immigration policy. Religious and cultural prejudice against the Irish, depicted as degraded and barbaric people, led nativists to view Irish pauperism as particularly odious compared to that of Americans and other immigrant groups, including Germans.
German pauperism, one nativist declared, “will give us little trouble,” while “Celtic pauperism is our stone of stumbling.” “The Irishman,” he asserted, “will not work while he can exist by begging.” Some Germans could be as poor as the Irish, the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor realized, but they stood at “the opposite [end] of the Irish, being generally a self-reliant, sober, frugal, thrifty people.”
State-level control in New York and Massachusetts eventually served as a model for national immigration policy. Officials in both states played a central role in the making of the federal Immigration Act of 1882, which banned the landing of undesirable foreigners, such as paupers and people with mental defects. These restrictions then set the groundwork for going even further in subsequent federal immigration laws.
Just as state-level control had, federal immigration policy gave inspecting officers almost unlimited power over foreigners. State passenger policy restricted the landing of foreigners “likely to become a public charge,” allowing officials to use their discretion to determine the admissibility of the immigrants in question. These policies let prejudice run rampant in unauthorized proceedings. Aggressive officers went so far as to kidnap Irish inmates from almshouses for deportation to Ireland, and even banish abroad those with American citizenship.
State-level immigration control against the destitute Irish was notably different from later federal policy in one crucial respect. Federal policy categorically excluded Asians, whereas state policy never aimed at the wholesale suspension of Irish immigration. It instead sought to remove only the particularly undesirable segment of white immigrants — the poor — who were otherwise generally wanted and accepted as members of American society.
Entitled since the establishment of the United States to the privilege of naturalized citizenship, which was limited to whites until 1870 and denied to Asians until the mid-20th century, Irish immigrants unquestionably belonged to the dominant racial group in America in this fundamental sense.
Nevertheless, anti-Irish nativism certainly laid the legal and institutional foundations for federal immigration control that immensely affected the lives of later non-white immigrants, as well as those from eastern and southern European countries. When Congress debated the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first federal law to restrict immigration on the basis of race, anti-Chinese politicians referred to existing state-level immigration control on the East Coast and claimed that Chinese exclusion would be “of the same class, in principle,” with restriction against destitute Europeans. Congress, they declared, should act to prevent the admission of all objectionable foreigners, “whether pauper, criminal, cooly.”
State-level immigration control against Irish paupers thus provided a strong rationale for the introduction of racist systems to regulate immigration.
Many of the issues seen in immigration control in 19th-century New York and Massachusetts — such as the alleged threat posed by foreigners to Americans’ jobs and the morality of American society, advocacy of the uncompromising implementation of deportation law, resultant family disruption and the manner and attitude of law enforcement — appear in remarkably similar ways in the United States today and shape our current debates over immigration. Just as nativists today demand the deportation of all undocumented immigrants, their 19th-century counterparts wished that “every pauper sent to this country was immediately returned.”
Racism has been the most disturbing aspect of American immigration policy, but it was built upon earlier practices of vilifying and deporting the Irish poor, reminding us that classism, as much as racism, has long driven our immigration policy.