Opinion

A walk back to our immigrant past

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A young girl arrived in the United States as an unaccompanied minor, just 17 years old.

She found work as a domestic servant, caring for the homes of the wealthy until she met the man she married a few years later.

She, her family and, in fact, all of her people faced significant discrimination. Her people were called terrible names, depicted as brutes and animals by politicians, the media and employers. Work was difficult to come by, and the jobs available were physically demanding and didn’t pay well.

At first, she and her husband lived in a gang-infested, filthy neighborhood. It was violent and without good sanitation.

A daughter died of malnutrition before her first birthday. Of eight children, only four survived.

The girl herself died at the age of just 36 after a hard, short life of childbirth and manual labor.

I heard Bridgette Moore’s story during a recent trip to New York City and a visit to the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side, where her family’s history is explored. The museum has re-created the conditions of the small apartment, just over 300 square feet on the fourth floor of an old brick building.

Bridgette came to America in the 1860s, a refugee from the potato famine in Ireland that led to a mass migration out of the country.

She arrived in New York City, where the Irish were treated as outsiders and outcasts, where signs read “No Irish Need Apply.”

Irish housekeepers and nannies were so common that the well-to-do referred to the young women as generic “Bridgettes,” the name stripped of its humanity and used instead as a description of a domestic servant.

As I walked through the tiny re-created apartment, traveling back in time 150 years, the parallels between the treatment of the Irish then and the harsh, illegal treatment of migrants along our southern border today were shockingly clear.

President Donald Trump in his anti-migrant rage has weaponized language against refugees, calling them “animals” and maligning innocent people as members of a violent street gang. The president talks of “infestation.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are checking papers on the interstate and at bus stations in Maine. Workplaces are being raided and children locked up in cages, forcibly separated from their parents all in the name of “law and order.”

As we celebrate the Fourth of July and we look back to our nation’s founding, we should also celebrate the waves of immigration that have strengthened our country and helped it to grow.
And we should draw a thick line against repeating the hateful mistakes of the past.

In the mid-1800s, Irish refugees flooded into the United States, desperate to escape the famine that had killed a million people.

At the time, families would send their kids — alone in many cases — to the United States in hopes that they would find a better, safer life and might be able to provide help once they got settled.

I have two kids. The notion of facing the decision to send one away to a foreign country on the hopes that they wouldn’t starve is terrifying.

Families are making those same choices today in Central and South America, as they flee — or sometimes send their children alone to escape — violence and death.

Warsan Shire, a Somali-British writer, captures the dilemma in a graphic poem about the choices facing a refugee:

“You have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land. … No one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying – leave, run away from me now. I don’t know what I’ve become, but I know that anywhere is safer than here.”

The outrages tumble through the news cycle at such a pace, it’s hard to keep up. The U.S. Supreme Court hangs in the balance. The scandal-plagued Environmental Protection Agency administrator puts our health at risk. Voting rights are at risk. The Western Alliance is threatened. North Korea expands its nuclear weapons capacity.

On its birthday, I gladly celebrate our country and its many triumphs. I hang the flag with pride. But I also remember the times we’ve come up short of the ideals that we are celebrating.

Most of us were “Bridgettes” once, born of anonymous immigrants hoping for a better life. As we wave our flags, watch those bombs bursting in air and celebrate America, I hope we can still remember.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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