St. Patrick’s Day and today’s immigrants

St. Patrick’s Day began as a religious feast day for Ireland’s patron saint. Today, it’s all about celebrating the Emerald Isle and its people: the culture, the history, the cuisine…Kelly green.

Given the current discussion about undocumented immigrants and the hostility and fear that some powerful people are stirring, I’ve been reflecting, also, on the Irish as migrants to America who made us richer because of all the things that make their culture unique.

But did we always appreciate how much depth and texture they added to the American story? No. When the Great Potato Famine drove hundreds of thousands of poor, uneducated Irish Catholics to these shores beginning in 1845, they were not celebrated. They were despised.

Although there’s been some debate about the prevalence of “No Irish Need Apply” signs in storefronts and other businesses, it is a fact that the Irish faced discrimination in hiring and housing. (Just listen to this song by the folk music quartet, The Weavers.) “Americans,” many of whom were only recent immigrants themselves, used their newly gained status and power to ostracize the newcomers who didn’t talk the way they did and observed unfamiliar customs, whose style of worship was not in keeping with what true “Americans” did. They needed to feel superior to someone and the Irish were an easy scapegoat.

Here we go again. This disturbingly familiar cycle goes like this: We initially fear those we don’t know. Egged on by cynical politicians, we blame them for what’s not right in our lives. But when we dare to stand up to the fear-mongering, we reach out and discover hopes and dreams very much like our own. We find common themes, and we come to respect and accept our differences rather than attempting to keep these “others” out or to make them copies of ourselves.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “othering” and about the Irish American experience as it relates to the journey of the 11 million undocumented immigrants and the DREAMers in our nation today. I’ve been thinking of the parents who have risked everything to get here, escaping hardships we can’t imagine. The children raised by relatives because their parents cannot make the journey, or have been deported. The students who now sit in privatized detention centers, where private prison chains make millions on keeping undocumented non-criminals behind bars for as long as possible, instead of classrooms.

 And I wonder: Is this the America that the Irish immigrants envisioned 172 years ago?

It’s become a bit trite to say that President Trump, Steve Bannon and those who share their ideology want to build walls instead of bridges. (Exhibits A-Z: The travel (Muslim) ban, immigration raids, expanded deportation policies, the rhetoric, etc.) But just because we hear it over and over again, doesn’t make it is any less harmful. And whether or not the walls are ever built, what they are actually doing may be even worse than constructing a literal barrier.

They’ve begun to succeed at Balkanizing us emotionally through pitting groups against each other and finding bogeymen to exploit. They hope to keep us distracted from the power we could have by standing together. They hope we won’t notice TrumpCare in which the richest get a tax break and the middle class and elderly get the “choice” of whether to pay their health insurance premium or buy food. They hope we won’t notice that public schools are being defunded in order to funnel money into the growing For-profit Charter Industry in which Betsy De Vos has invested for years.  

 If they can keep us so divided that we no longer see our commonality and vulnerability and instead see only fear and distrust, then the belief in community, equal opportunity and a chance to work hard and make a better life for our children—the values we are most proud of and what immigrants come in search of today—will be lost forever.

 As educators, we see firsthand the impact that misguided and discriminatory immigration policies have in our schools and on our students. But we model compassion through valuing and nurturing every single child and teaching students how they should treat those who are vulnerable or frightened. We work hard to create safe and stable learning environments for our immigrant students. Some of us have even encouraged our school boards to declare school districts “safe zones.” Others have held clinics to inform immigrant families of their rights and connect them with legal counsel.

There are many ways we can resist on behalf of our students, and tons of resources on NEA’s Edjustice website, including “Know Your Rights” guides, Deportation Defense Cards, FAQ’s and quick tips on DACA.

 And as angry as I am about what’s happening today, I know how blessed we are to be educators—public-school educators. We don’t turn students away or refuse to teach them because of where they come from. We believe their chances for success shouldn’t depend on where they or their parents were born.

Together, we must work for real immigration reform that strengthens our communities and our schools. The laws we enact and the measures we take should reflect our core values as a nation that welcomes immigrants and does not scapegoat them.

 The Irish poet William Butler Yeats once said, “There are no strangers here, only friends that have not yet met.” Words to live by.

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