Scott MacKay: In The Spirit of St. Patrick and St. Joseph, Let's Approve Undocumented Licenses

Mar 11, 2016

This week marks two holidays honoring St. Patrick and St. Joseph, the patron saints of Irish and Italian-Americans. All of this has RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay thinking about the rich history of Irish and Italian immigration in Rhode Island and the recent debates about new immigrants. 

The Irish and Italian heritage in Rhode Island will be celebrated this week in song, sermon and parade. We’ll wear green for St. Patrick and Red for St. Joseph and feast on heaping plates of corned beef and cabbage and sweet zeppoles.

There is, of course, a deeper meaning to these celebrations than feasting and fun. The Irish were the first Roman Catholic immigrants to come to our state in large numbers. St. Patrick’s Day was first commemorated in Providence in 1839. The Irish Potato famine of the 1840s pushed thousands from the Emerald Isle and more than 25,000 landed in our state.

Italians came later. But by 1905 nearly 20,000 Italians were living on Federal Hill. They jammed into tenements along narrow streets in the same buildings that once housed a newly arrived Irish community, whose members by then had earned enough money to move up and out.

The Irish and Italians, along with the French-Canadians, made up the largest immigrant communities, but by the turn of the 20th century, the Ocean State was also home to Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe, Portuguese, Cape Verdeans  and many others.

Jobs were plentiful in the growing textile economy. And these immigrants were valued mostly for their cheap labor. The first generations, in particular, were discriminated against and treated with contempt by nativist Protestant Yankees. The Irish were greeted with No Irish Need Apply signs in shop windows  and ads in the Providence Journal. Italians were stereotyped as criminals and advocates of fascism.

The Ku Klux Klan even held anti-Catholic cross burnings in the 1920s in northern Rhode Island.

There really was no such thing as an illegal immigrant until the 1920s, when the Protestant majority, alarmed at immigration from southern Europe, persuaded the federal government to clamp down on immigration, particularly from Italy, Portugal and other southern European nations.

So here we are, 177 years after the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Rhode Island. Our presidential campaign rings with debate over the status of undocumented immigrants. At the Statehouse, there have long been vigorous debates over limiting immigrant rights. This year, the joust is over granting special drivers licenses to the undocumented.

There has also been a sharp-elbowed discussion of whether to allow Syrians escaping war and deprivation into our country. Syrians have been coming to Rhode Island since the 1870s. Many settled in the factory communities of Central Falls and Pawtucket, where they made their mark on these communities as hard-working weavers and people of faith and family.

Republican Donald Trump, the front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination, talks of deporting every undocumented immigrant. That’s a fantasy. Let’s remember that the barriers fell for Irish and Italian immigrants because of their work ethic, political action, family and faith traditions and help from the free economy, the public schools and the labor union movement.

As we celebrate the past, we must look to the future. Today’s undocumented immigrant children represent the workforce and political leadership of the future. If these folks work hard, get educated, obey the law and care for their families, they should be welcomed.

In Providence,  many new immigrants from Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean live in the same wood-frame triple-deckers as earlier immigrant generations. Let’s help them urge the General Assembly to follow the wishes of Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin and the State Council of Churches  in adopting  immigrant driver licenses. It won’t cost the taxpayers anything, and it will send a welcoming message to our newest arrivals.

Have a safe and happy two saints week.

Scott MacKay’s political commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political commentary and analysis T at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org