A Terrible Beauty

Here's the weird part.

I may have to thank Donald Trump.

Who got me thinking about immigration.

I am Irish and proud of it. My full (and formal) name -- Cornelius Patrick McCarthy -- shouts Irish from the rafters. I will regale any who listen with tales of great grandparents and grand uncles and aunts from Cork who came and manned the mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts and the precincts of New York City.

Of course, I am not actually Irish. I am American.

And though Americans whose grandparents were born in Ireland can become dual nationals, I am not one of them either. All my grandparents were born here. In fact, that fourth paragraph is a bit of a stretch.

Because, truth be told, three-quarters of my great grandparents were born here as well.

So, is this whole Irish thing a big put on? Am I just one of those white-haired, fair-skinned, unmistakably Celtic-looking pretenders who wears green, eats corned beef (which the Irish themselves do not eat), and dodges drunks on Paddy's Day?

Or am I the real thing?

In fact, what is the real thing?

And that's where The Donald comes in.

After the insults, adolescent narcissism and misogyny, Trump's signature move in this presidential season has been his stand on immigration. There are three parts to his dance. First, there is "the Wall." "A nation without borders is not a nation," says Trump; what he really means, however, is that "a nation which can't keep out illegals is not a nation." So Trump will build a wall across the 1,954-mile border between the US and Mexico, and every time Mexico complains, the wall will get bigger.

Second, there is the racist xenophobia. At the announcement of his candidacy, Mexican immigrants became "rapists" and "criminals" -- who were "not you" -- being sent north by a country off-loading its undesirables.

Finally, xenophobia and nativism on immigration is side-carred with religious bigotry as a tool in the fight against terrorism. In this phase of Trumpism, the need for better intel and -- in Europe -- interstate coordination and information sharing is either jettisoned (or put on hold) as the principal approach in exchange for a wholesale ban on non-citizen Muslim entrants into the country until the government "can figure out what is going on." It is apparently irrelevant that the government has already "figured out" that the vast majority (99.99%) of Muslims are not terrorists.

Or that most terrorist acts since 1985 have been committed by non-Muslims.

It's very easy to chalk all this up to Trump's inherent flaws. He is a clown, a charlatan and a con-man. He has no respect for truth or facts. He is immature in ways that are both clinical and scary.

Nevertheless, his views on immigration are shared by a large group of Americans who share none of these flaws. Which begs the ultimate question.

Which is . . .


Here is my answer.

Trump is plowing very fertile ground.

At least three myths define the story of immigration in America. The first is the myth of the melting pot and its first cousin -- assimilation. This is a myth about history. It claims that, in our nation of immigrants, everyone who came somehow morphed into an androgynous American whole. The second is the southern border myth; this is the one Trump highlights with impunity in his "a nation without borders is not a nation" mantra; it treats the line between Mexico and the US as inherent (and sacred) when in fact it was accidental (and utterly profane). The third is the illegality myth, the notion that the number of illegal or undocumented aliens is increasing and reeking economic havoc, principally in the form of wage suppression.

These are myths because none of these claims are factually correct. As a general rule, immigrants historically have learned English and integrated into the American economy. They have not, however, assimilated, at least not in the sense set forth in the dictionary, which defines the word to mean one who conforms to or resembles the group. In fact, to the contrary, immigrant groups stuck together and still do. Each group brought its distinctive cultures, foods, and prayers to these shores. They may have acquired a new identity, but they did not lose their old one.

The southern border myth is equally mistaken. There was nothing pre-ordained about our southern border, and it certainly cannot be used to define the nation. The border itself was the product of a war -- the Mexican-American War of 1846 -- fought largely as a consequence of a linguistic dispute over which river properly constituted the Rio Grande separating the two countries. Texans thought it was the southern Rio Grande and Mexicans thought it was the northern one, which Texans called the Nuesces. Today that dispute would be arbitrated. In 1846, however, it became the pretext for a show of force designed to provoke an attack that would allow the US the seize the greater part of what was then northern Mexico (and is now our southwest plus California).

It did.

And then the US did.

One of the ironies is that the Mexican-American War was itself rooted in the earlier war between Texas and Mexico, an earlier war caused by Mexico outlawing slavery in 1829 and making American immigration into Texas (then a Mexican province) illegal. This, however, did not stop the Americans, who entered illegally anyway and then later fought for and won their independence. (Remember the Alamo!)

The irony, of course, is that Americans were illegal immigrants into Mexico long before any Mexicans violated "our" southern border. Another irony is that, once the US prevailed in the war, the largest part of the new southwestern US and California was composed of hitherto Mexican citizens and was marked by a Hispanic culture that left its imprint on law, architecture, and names. Today, the oldest capital city in the US is not located in New England or Virginia. It is located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And the coast of California is not dotted with cities and towns named for dukes or English shires. The names are largely those of Catholic saints provided by Spanish missionaries.

In any case, so much for the sanctity of the southern border. It definitely established a boundary. It did not, however, define a culture or a nation.

Then there is the illegality myth, the myth that more illegals are entering than leaving and that they are doing some kind of permanent damage to our economy. It is false on both counts. On the one hand, the population of undocumenteds or illegals has declined significantly over the last nine years and more are now leaving than coming. On the other, economic studies have shown that immigration -- including the work of undocumented immigrants -- is a huge plus for both the economy as a whole and even for low-income workers. In fact, President Bush's own Council of Economic Advisers estimated in 2008 that American workers actually make $30 billion annually in wage gains as a result of immigration.

So, where to from here?

Trump is only the latest xenophobe.

There is, however, no way we can even hope to make him the last unless we eliminate the myths.

And tell a new -- and more accurate -- story about our "nation of immigrants."

In that new narrative, America is not a melting pot. It is a mosaic. It is stitched together to be and remain whole. But its parts are distinct -- multi-colored and multi-textured. Each of us who claims immigrant heritage (and, since most of us must, even those who blindly ignore it) is a hyphenated American. (Or, as Will Ferrell put it in a recent SNL skit, "Unless your name is Running Bear, we are all anchor babies."). What makes me American are the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, not the line drawn between me and Canada or me and Mexico.

And what makes me Irish are my ancestors and (therefore) my genes. There is nothing phony about it.

The poet William Butler Yeats once wrote:

Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Though he was speaking of the Irish Rising of 1916, his words are as apt for the Irish immigrants who peopled these shores by the millions in the 19th century. In art, literature, music, politics and sport, those immigrants changed the face of America.

Which today basks in the "terrible beauty" they -- and all their immigrant neighbors -- created.

PS -- A larger version of this essay was presented as the Spring Honors Lecture at Mt. Aloysius College in Cresson, Pennsylvania on St. Patrick's Day. For any who are interested, the link to that lecture is available at here.