THE foreign-born population of the USA has been on the rise in recent years and currently stands at just under 14% (2017 data), up from about 8% in 1990 but broadly in line with the figure for most of the late 19th and early 20th century.
This may sound like a lot, until we remind ourselves that the figure for Cork city in 2016 is also about 14%, a dramatic increase from less than 5% as recently as 1996.
While not without teething problems, few would say that the more diverse nature of Cork’s population today has not largely been a positive story. Whether they work in hi-tech companies, the new restaurants or the health and education sectors, the new arrivals have brought energy and diversity with them and are very much part of Cork life now.
In the case of the U.S, too, that constant process of ongoing immigration has been one of its great strengths. Irish people have been among the biggest contributors to this diversity, as may be seen from the fact nearly 40 million Americans are partly of Irish descent.
Why, then, is immigration causing so much controversy in the USA at present? A number of reasons can be identified.
For one thing, today’s immigrants are more varied. 19th century immigrants were overwhelmingly white and European in origin. Chinese immigration was forbidden entirely by a notorious act of 1882, while numbers from Central and South America (the USA’s immediate neighbours) were also low. The USA itself was a deeply divided society which excluded African Americans from equality and advancement in society.
By the 1990s much had changed. Immigration rules were considerably fairer. Racial discrimination had certainly not vanished, but progress had been made. At the same time, the falling cost of travel, a globalised world, conflict and insecurity in countries of origin as well as grinding poverty in an unequal world, have increased rates of international migration (legal and illegal) to the USA.
Not all have welcomed a more equal and diverse American society. White supremacist groups have been around since the days of the Ku Klux Klan in the 19th century (incidentally they were also opposed to immigration by Catholics and Jews). But now they have a new strength and support. The animosity of these groups is directed in the first place at minorities within American society itself, but also at immigrants who are not of traditional, European, white origin. An underlying belief in white racial superiority, combined with a fear that white Americans may find themselves in a minority in the not too distant future, explains much of the rise of the far-right.
Today there are probably more than 10 million undocumented migrants in the USA, from a total population of about 327 million. This is in spite of the adoption in 1986 of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), familiar to many Irish people, which effectively amnestied or regularised part of the estimated 5 to 6 million undocumented there at that time but promised stricter controls for the future. It hasn’t worked out that way. This can be explained by demand for cheap labour, existing family connections and the fact that states and employers were prepared to turn a blind eye to what was happening. Many came in the hope that another change in the law or special measures of some kind would make it worth the risk for a better life.
The question of immigration reform in light of these circumstances was complicated and rendered even more difficult by the change in the political climate after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Yet there was also a continuing hope that a bipartisan solution could be found. Two men in particular, Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain, worked tirelessly to fashion a new immigration policy, introducing a reforming bill in 2005. In the end they did not succeed. Both men have since died.
What has changed things so much for the worse in recent years? In a word, Trump. The current administration is the most hostile to immigrants in recent US history. Mr Trump has deliberately and systematically targeted immigrants as criminals, rapists and law-breakers, with a focus on Muslims, Mexicans and people from the Global South more generally. His key campaign commitment to ‘build a wall’ between the USA and Mexico remains unfulfilled, but it and the broader anti-immigrant and xenophobic statements made by the White House have enormously envenomed public discourse concerning immigration.
Matters have been greatly worsened by the inhumane treatment meted out to migrants, with the separation of children from their parents and the detention of some migrants in appalling conditions.
Irish undocumented migrants are not the target of the current campaign but that does not mean they might not be caught in the crossfire. There may be somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 Irish undocumented migrants in the US at present (not 50,000 as sometimes claimed). This is a far lower figure than in the late 1980s. On that occasion, a variety of special visa programmes ultimately resolved many outstanding issues, or people returned home or moved elsewhere. Nowadays it is likely that a bullish administration will be less inclined to compromise.
It would be foolish to think that Trump’s racism is not popular among some Americans, as can be seen in the approving response from his ‘base’ to his outrageous attacks in recent days on four American congresswomen of colour, telling them to go back to where they came from, even though three were born in the US and the fourth arrived as a refugee at the age of 8. Indeed, a second term of office for Trump is quite likely. One can only hope that opponents of his divisive and dangerous doctrines will come together to oppose them in a more effective manner than heretofore.