Trump's America is Not the Country My Grandfather Immigrated To

Trump’s America is Not the Country My Grandfather Immigrated To

I am the son of an immigrant

I did not have what many people would consider to be “the American Immigrant Experience”. My father was born and raised in the Bronx. My mother, on the other hand, came to America from Ireland’s capital city of Dublin not long after President Kennedy was assassinated. I am white. I grew up without any accent (save for the natural and stereotypical Northern New Jersey one made famous by The Sopranos). I spent my childhood collecting baseball cards, playing pickup basketball and spending too much time in front of the (original) Nintendo.

I didn’t have to explain the intricacies of my culture before well-meaning but severely-placating “heritage days” in elementary school. I was treated no different than peers who traced their lineage in the United States back to the nineteenth century.

But I am the son of an immigrant and I honor and cherish that culture and heritage with regularity. Particularly in the month of March, as the most sacred of Irish holidays – St. Patrick’s Day – is celebrated from coast to coast in the country of MY birth, which is home to almost 35 Million Americans of Irish descent.

Lately, however, it’s been increasingly harder to celebrate that heritage because too many descendants of Eire have forgotten that they too, come from a family of immigrants. And because I often think frequently of my grandfather, whom I lost twenty years ago this month, and the courage it took for him to come to America. And I wonder what he would think about the vanishing inscription of “The New Colossus at the pedestal of Lady Liberty.

William “Billy” Reilly worked construction in London following the Second World War – like many other Irishmen of his generation. The British capital was decimated during the Nazi offensive and following the Allied victory, there was much to rebuild. My mother was actually born in London in 1950, shortly before my grandparents returned home to Dublin. The Dublin they returned to, however, did not offer the same opportunities for prosperity.

In a 2006 report on the history of the Irish Economy, the Heritage Foundation noted how economic nationalism and protectionism left the Emerald Isle lagging dramatically behind the rest of Western Europe as they emerged from their rebuild with newfound prosperity:

For a generation after achieving independence from the United Kingdom in 1922, Ireland sought to be economically self-sufficient. It relied on small-scale agriculture, exporting primary produce to the U.K. market and manufacturing mainly for the home market of less than 3 million people. Trade barriers such as high Tariffs and a policy of import substitution sought to make this reliance on economic nationalism successful. 

After a decade of stagnation and a family to provide for, my grandfather made a decision that deep down inside, most humans never truly WANT to have to consider: leaving the country of your birth.

So on Halloween of 1964, he boarded a plane headed for JFK Airport along with his wife and two teenage daughters – my eventual mother and godmother. They left their sprawling extended family and the comforts of their hometown for the unknown in the United States of America.

All they proceeded to do for the next thirty years was work and then work some more. Grandpa, as a union carpenter at a local university. Nana, in various service jobs at a local hospital. They eventually bought a house. They paid off that house. They took us on vacation, down the Jersey Shore, every summer. They saw the birth and childhood of four grandchildren and spoiled them rotten. They passed away at the end of the century with a modest but impressive inheritance to leave their children and grandchildren. They lived the American Dream.

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Now, in the greater context of immigration, it’s important to note that William, Rita, Phyllis and Bridget Reilly immigrated to the welcoming streets of Hackensack, New Jersey legally. My grandfather’s younger brother, Pat, had made the move years prior and sponsored him. Pat himself was sponsored by a relative who arrived even earlier. Believe me. I often hear “Yes, but your family came here legally” as a retort to my perceived revolutionary idea that undocumented workers be treated with dignity.

But even the fact that my grandparents brought their children here through proper channels carries more nuance than many would choose to understand.  Beginning in 1924 – in reaction to a wave of immigrants from Italy and other parts of Southeast Europe – a quota system was enacted that heavily favored prospective citizens from Northwest Europe, in particularly England, Ireland, and Germany. This would not change until a year after my family arrived.

Laws are funny like that. People often act like so-called “illegal immigration” is a crime in the same regard that theft or assault or murder is a crime. As if it’s always been that way since the dawn of civilization, failing to understand the subtleties and arbitrary guidelines that have factored into our ever-evolving policies on the issue.

There is a Profound Tone of Disrespect for the Modern Immigrant

But while our laws may change over time, our duty as human beings never should. In 2016, the American people (via the Electoral College) elected a man whose campaign was run almost entirely on anti-immigrant rhetoric. He wasn’t debating policy. He was insulting human beings who wanted nothing more than a better life for their children and grandchildren. Just like my grandfather did.

And while the president’s attempts to change the existing immigration laws have been stonewalled by Democrats and Republicans alike, the actions he has been able to take unilaterally are eerily reminiscent of some of the 20th Century’s most vile dictators, while being sanitized just enough to be acceptable to enough people.

Among the many horror stories of ICE roundups, we’ve learned that:

We were told that the administration was going to go after “criminals” and “drug dealers” and “gangs”. But they’re sicking their goons on everyone.

How Could This Be Good For America?

When my grandfather passed away in 1998 I was asked to deliver his eulogy. While I don’t remember it word for word, I focused on how often I’d hear him say “America’s been very good to me”. And it was. It gave him a chance to provide. It gave him a chance to reinvent himself in the middle of his life. It offered opportunity and experiences that he would never have had if he remained in Dublin.

I closed the eulogy by speaking about how, while America was good to him, he was just as good for America. Because there is something inherent in the immigrant spirit that so many native-born citizens lack. An ability to dream. When you’ve already made the biggest risk of your life, everything else is gravy.

I wish I had half of my grandfather’s courage. I wish I had a sliver of his ambition. Most of all, every time I find myself in my garage trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, I wish I paid attention to the handy skills he tried to pass on to me.

We are losing that.

We’re not only losing that, we’re violently ripping it out of our collective body.

And we’re doing it without dignity.

I cringe when I see people of obvious Irish ancestry hopping on the immigrant-bashing-express. Folks with O’s and Mc’s leading their surnames pages getting giddy about building the wall. Do they not realize that when many of their forbearers came to our shores, they were greeted with signs saying “No Irish Need Apply“. This St. Patrick’s Day, let’s do some soul searching.

This is not a plea for lawlessness. I, like most people, understand we need to be a society with rules and structure. But this is a plea for dignity and decency. Because this is not the America my grandfather emigrated to.

And it’s not the one your ancestors sought out either.

Photo Credit: Personal Collection of the author, Free Stock Photos, Flickr, Wikimedia Commons