Anti-immigrant rhetoric has become an ugly feature of the US presidential race, yet some of the major candidates vying for the White House are themselves either the children or spouses of immigrants.
Somewhere in this election, the message seems to have been lost that America is a country of immigrants and that a president can no longer rely on ageing white voters to get elected but must have the support of Hispanics and others who make up the new demographic.
Barack Obama’s election proved that when he was swept to power with over 70% of Hispanic voters.
But instead of wooing these new immigrants, who like the Irish and Italians before them will be essential to the future prosperity of America, many candidates of immigrants stock themselves are going out of their way to insult them.
It’s a sad irony for a country that was spawned by immigrants who made its diversity its greatest strength. Most people who’ve lived in America find it to be a welcoming and hospitable place that can easily become home, especially if you’re Irish.
But, of course, there was a time when Irish and Italian Catholics and Jewish immigrants and others faced hostility and even violence.
American historian Bill Watson, is leading a project to solve the mystery of the deaths of 50 Irish immigrant workers on the Pennsylvania railroad over a century and a half ago.
Watson says his work has led him towards the chilling conclusion that many of the immigrants were massacred during anti-immigrant hysteria and fears they had brought cholera with them, though the deadly outbreak in the area had started before the immigrants had arrived there.
So anti-immigrant sentiment is not a new phenomenon, though many believed it had been consigned to the history books. Sadly, however, in this election, a century of progress is being lost and America is being transformed from a welcoming country into a cold and hostile place if you happen to be Hispanic, for example, or if you happen to profess the Islamic faith.
It would be naive, of course, to think this is all happening in a vacuum. It’s essentially happening because some presidential candidates are boosting their poll numbers by exploiting justifiable fears among Americans about national security and more terrorists attacks, like those visited on Paris and San Bernardino. The man who set this bandwagon rolling was Donald Trump when he launched his presidential bid by branding Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. And he has barely paused for breath since.
Yet Trump’s own mother was an immigrant to America and his wife is also an immigrant. His mother, Mary Anne MacLeod, emigrated from Scotland, while his wife, Melania Knauss, emigrated from Slovenia and became a US citizen in 2006.
Jeb Bush, who has proposed a religious test for Syrian refugees that would favour Christians entering America, is married to Columba Garnica de Gallo, who was born in Mexico. She became an American citizen in 1979. Bush speaks fluent Spanish but went from defending his decision to speak it during the campaign (“this is a diverse country”) to saying “we should not have a multicultural society”. Senator Ted Cruz, who was quick to follow Trump’s demogagory and could end up winning the Republican nominating contest in Iowa, was born in Canada and is the son of a Cuban immigrant to the US. In an ironic twist, because he was not born in the US, he would seem not to meet the constitutional requirement to be president. But constitutional scholars say that because his mother was an American citizen at the time of his birth, he was therefore a US citizen at birth and that is enough to satisfy the requirement.
Senator Marco Rubio is also the son of Cuban immigrants. Mario Rubio Reina and Oriales Garcia Rubio came from Cuba to the US and became citizens in 1975, four years after Marco was born in America.
Rubio joined with Democrats to pioneer an immigration reform deal in the senate in 2013 that would have led to a path to citizenship for illegals, over 50,000 of whom are Irish, but it was blocked by the House of Representatives.
In this election, however, he is running away from that record and has toughened his stand on immigration.
Rick Santorum’s immigration policies are tough too, although his own father was an Italian immigrant who arrived in the US in 1930. Santorum opposes granting undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, and he would also end the right to citizenship for those born in the US.
On the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders’ father, Eli Sanders, was an immigrant from Poland. Sanders helped kill an immigration reform bill in 2007, arguing that increased competition from abroad would hurt American workers. In this election, however, he’s adopted a more pro-immigrant tone.