How the Irish Are Ruining Immigration Reform for Everyone Else

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Amid the stories of DACA repeal, ICE ambushes at court hearings, and an immigrant snitch line gone haywire, you probably didn’t notice that earlier this month Paul Ryan and members of the Trump cabinet took meetings with an interest group trying to cut a deal for a special subset of America’s 11 million undocumented residents. They’re no SuperPAC, but what they lack in spending power they make up for in charming brogues—it’s the Irish! Every American’s favorite nationality for at least once a year!

I’m Irish—as in, actually born and raised in Ireland (I know “Irish” can mean something different in America), and I’ve lived in Washington, D.C. for the past 5 years. So when I see someone from the Irish government coming through town, I naturally take notice. As an Irish citizen abroad, I can’t vote, so it’s the closest I can get (so to speak) to an elected representative.


Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney was in Washington to meet with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Budget Director Mike Mulvaney, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi to talk trade policy, tax policy, Brexit, and that thorny issue of the Irish undocumented. Ireland has been lobbying the U.S. government on behalf of the estimated 10,000 (revised down this year from 50,000) undocumented Irish citizens living in America since before Bono wore sunglasses indoors. Pushing the issue with U.S. officials is nothing new; it happens every St. Patrick’s Day. It is a tried, tested, and utterly failed strategy, and the Irish government’s ability to achieve zero concessions from America on this issue spans Democrat and Republican administrations.

This failure has not deterred successive Irish governments from trying the same strategy over and over. We’ve doubled down and even appointed a special envoy to Congress. As all true Irishmen know, it’s not about winning, it’s about giving it a lash. Wanting success is for the Yanks and that Conor McGregor fella.


It is hard not to see a racial angle in the Irish government’s recent maneuvers, not to see it as a cynical effort to exploit a moment when racist and nativist forces in American society are ascendant. There is an implicit message in these negotiations: “We’re the good ones, remember? Hell, people will barely notice.”

Perhaps they see a side of Congress that’s been hidden to the rest of us up until now. The same GOP-run Congress that famously can’t decide on healthcare (despite having seven years to think up an alternative) could miraculously find common voice on immigration. But this GOP has nothing to gain from providing the Irish with a loophole. To expect any softening of their hardline stance, especially as 2018 elections (and primaries) loom, would be a dramatic misreading of what the Trump presidency means for the future of the Republican Party.


Watching Ireland’s efforts has been dispiriting and frankly embarrassing. It’s part of a story the Irish tell themselves about America, that although Israel gets all those billions and Americans get giddy about the British Royals, that deep down Ireland is the favorite. Like a dog whose master has been gone for weeks, our anxieties melt away once the Americans tickle behind our ears and tell us how great we are. They do love our golf courses.


You don’t have to look too far back to know that it wasn’t always this way. “No Irish Need Apply” isn’t just a sight gag in The Simpsons, it was an entrenched system of discrimination against new Irish immigrants in mid-19th century America. Depictions of the Irish as ape-like, rapacious drunks were commonplace at a time when “White” America shunned the new European immigrant wave. There are competing accounts as to how the Irish eventually came to be seen as white in America: their support for slavery, their rise as a voting bloc, or the fact of their European stock making assimilation inevitable.

(Whacking Day is actually made up, though)

There was a time when the Irish could simply blend in. But the case of John Cunningham, an undocumented Irishman living in Boston who was deported this summer following an ICE raid on his home, made clear that even having a pronounceable name and pale skin is not a reliable safety net. Facing this reality, Ireland should try a different approach to help the 10,000 undocumented Irish.

Going it alone is the problem. And as the percentage of Americans claiming to be Irish hits its lowest point in decades, it’s time Ireland got some friends.


Building unity and solidarity are the keys to leverage. Ireland shouldn’t just be joining forces with Mexico and Central American countries in pushing for reform, but with the groups already at work in America protecting immigrants and standing up for their rights. Unifying Ireland with the rest of America’s undocumented immigrants blurs any racial lens, making any racist arguments fall flat. Ireland’s history of immigration (Mike Pence’s grandfather emigrated from Ireland, for instance) exposes the hypocrisy inherent in so much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Most importantly, Ireland has a platform that more marginalized undocumented immigrants don’t have. Every March, America’s political leadership have to smile and drink grey stout out of Guinness cans while listening to Irish politicians for a whole day of their lives. Ireland can put that power to good use and not just advocate on behalf of the 10,000 Irish undocumented but for all 11 million.


There was a glimpse of that future last St. Patrick’s Day, when 2,500 people eschewed the green beer-drinking, cop-worshipping, and vomiting that usually marks that day in New York. Instead, they crammed into Riverside Church in Manhattan for “The Irish Stand,” a night of speeches and solidarity for all immigrants with every dollar raised going to support the ACLU.

This is a start in awakening the kind of solidarity that will be needed for the fights to come. Ireland has had years of failure on advancing the rights of its undocumented citizens in America. By looking beyond familiar last names and searching for true allies, Ireland has its best chance of finding the deal it’s been longing for.


Colm Quinn is an Irishman based in Washington, D.C. He is @colmfquinn on Twitter.

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