Contemporary debates about immigration are not new to the United States. Debates about immigration in the United States have always been difficult and laced with social prejudice. Late 19th-century America faced immigration challenges with an influx of people from Asia and southern and eastern Europe. The Chinese, Irish, and Italians came to the United States in search of freedom and the American dream―they were escaping political, social, and economic turmoil at home. When they came to America, they were often confronted with prejudice and fear. Immigration policy in the 19th century frequently reflected these fears and prejudice by using "scientific" language or cloaking it in medical concerns, often classifying different immigrant groups as "infectious." Immigration health policy often assumed that different ethnic and racial types carried diseases.
And if immigrants were indeed admitted, they often again confronted stereotyping and prejudice. In the 19th century, a popular British song and saying was used by Irish Americans to reflect the discrimination they experienced in America: No Irish Need Apply (NINA). NINA was used in advertisements for many different types of positions, including clerks at stores and hotels, bartenders, farm workers, house painters, hog butchers, coachmen, bookkeepers, workers at lumber yards, upholsterers, bakers, gilders, tailors, and papier-mâché workers, among others.
But my ancestors came nonetheless, and they stayed. And I am pretty sure that one or two may have come illegally. In our recent "debates," we have focused particularly on the South and immigration from Mexico and Central America. So the slogans we hear from many of our presidential candidates are not new. They are the latest version of an old American fear. Our current debate in America about immigration reform reflects our fears and our prejudices. The rhetoric has focused on Mexico and building walls. There is never a mention of the 50,000 Irish who are currently in the U.S. illegally.
The rhetoric around immigration is often tied to the notion of taking jobs from able Americans. In the immediate years and months following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was flooded with undocumented workers who proved essential to the rebuilding of the city. They were day laborers who lived in conditions and places that others would not live in. They did work that few others would do. And the work they did was a crucial step in the city's rebirth.
Among the many Americans who will vote in the 2016 presidential elections are millions whose ancestors faced restrictive immigration policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Alien Contract Labor Laws of the 1800s, which prohibited certain laborers from coming to the United States. Among them too are millions of Americans whose family members now face onerous policies and prejudices too numerous to count. And today, Loyola University New Orleans' Jesuit Social Research Institute releases the inaugural Just South Index, an innovative new report that compares all 50 states and the District of Columbia against nine social measures. The report highlights three major challenges across the nation: racial disparity, poverty, and immigrant exclusion. It shows that we can do better.
Do we need to improve our immigration system? No doubt. We need a system that is workable and, since we are a nation of immigrants, open. But in improving our immigration system, we must work not to embed our prejudices in the system.
Today, many of you will wear green and perhaps raise a glass to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, the Catholic feast of the patron saint of Ireland. Given our nation's history, it's a wonder that festivities created as a touchstone for Irish Americans who missed the Old Country are today a point of celebration for millions, whether or not they have ties to the Emerald Isle. To that, we could credit marketing, demographics, even a national love of celebration. We could also consider opportunities granted and barriers overcome. And those are ideals worth striving for.