Immigration and Race: White and Undocumented

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File this under “things we didn’t know we didn’t know”: there’s a fairly large population of undocumented Irish nationals living in the US.

What set us Googling was a series of Tweets referencing Irish Prime Minister Enda Kelly’s visit with Donald Trump yesterday, in which the PM brought up the status of the 50,000 or so undocumented Irish immigrants currently in the US. Kelly said to Trump,

“This is what I said to your predecessor [Barack Obama] on a number of occasions – we would like this to be sorted,” he told the president at a lunch event. “It would remove a burden off so many people that they can stand out in the light and say: ‘Now I am free to contribute to America, as I know I can.'”

Some additional searching brought up regular news stories about undocumented Irish immigrants, from a 2015 NPR report

Gerry is one of an estimated 50,000 Irish who are not authorized to be in the U.S., according to the Irish embassy in Washington, D.C. Most of have stayed too long on their visas, and most live in the large Irish populations of New York City, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.

— to a New York Times story from 1989 detailing similar issues.

The interesting through line in the articles is the fact that Irish people generally look white — though in the 19th century, they were often viewed as an inferior “kind” of white — and therefore aren’t subject to the same profiling as people of color.

A 2007 LA Times article points out that being a white illegal immigrant can be useful:

Irish immigrant advocates are acutely aware that the American public doesn’t identify the Irish as alien, let alone illegal, and they consciously leverage this positive prejudice to their advantage. “The fact that they’re white Europeans agitating for immigration reform is helpful,” said Niall O’Dowd, chairman of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform and publisher of the Irish Voice newspaper. “Bottom line is that every ethnic group brings their own strength to the debate. We can’t put a million people in the street, but we have positive political identification and a lot of access to Democrats and Republicans.”

Still, a CNN article this week notes that undocumented Irish are feeling scared under the Trump administration, too.

All in all, it’s food for thought about the relationship between skin color and anti-immigrant feeling, and a reminder that assumptions about who’s foreign have changed a lot over the decades.

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