President Trump’s recent comments calling Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations “shithole countries,” has been met with strong reactions. House Speaker Paul Ryan, reflecting upon the hardships that Irish immigrants like his ancestors had once faced, called the president’s choice of language “very unfortunate" and "unhelpful” and said “the Irish were really looked down upon back in those days.” Ryan’s reference to the Irish offers a teachable moment about US immigration history, explains Hidetaka Hirota, a professor of American history at the City University of New York-City College and author of Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy. It was the backlash in large part against poor Irish immigrants that led to the first US immigration policies and law, Hirota says.
Hirota writes that during the nineteenth century many Irish-Catholic immigrants arrived to the US poor and in ill health from the famine in Ireland and the long journey, and entered public almshouses or hospitals. Many nineteenth century nativists referred to these Irish immigrants as “St. Patrick’s Vermin” and resented them for their dependence upon public aid, while giving German paupers a pass because they were perceived to be of better racial stock.
In order to decrease the immigration of the impoverished Irish and other so-called undesirables, New York and Massachusetts passed laws to restrict their arrival as well as deport them. The immigration policy also granted inspecting officers wide authority over foreigners, allowing them to prohibit those “likely to become a public charge” from entering the US. These policies were greatly prejudiced against the Irish poor, and some aggressive officers even kidnapped Irish immigrants from the almshouses to deport them back to Ireland.
These anti-Irish laws provided the federal government with a legal foundation to later control and prohibit the immigration of non-white immigrants, together with those from eastern and southern European countries. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the National Origins Act of 1924 were designed to exclude or limit so-called inferior races from entering or remaining in the US. These laws help explain the disparity in the immigration experiences of different nationalities, Kevin Jennings, the president of the Tenement Museum, says.
One of the Tenement Museum exhibits tells the story of how a German national named Nathalie Gumpertz came to the US in 1858 and essentially “just got off the boat and walked over to the Lower East Side and started a new life” while a little over fifty years later an Italian immigrant Rosaria Baldizzi had to enter and live in the US without legal documentation for almost twenty years because the National Origins Act had placed a very low quota on Italian immigrants. “The reality is, immigration law is a moving target in America,” Jennings tells NPR. “It has not existed for most of our history, and when it has existed, it has waxed and waned with different attitudes towards people coming into the country.”
Hirota sees many similarities in the current anti-immigrant climate with that of the nineteenth century. “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.’” This is why 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.”