According to the latest census data, the foreign-born share of the American population is close to a historic high. In 2021, approximately 13.6% of the population was born outside of the U.S.–second only to 14.8% in 1890.
Some Americans are wary of this upward trend. Still, U.S. history should teach us that the new arrivals in our country will only work to our cultural benefit.
Today’s immigrants are not fundamentally different compared to previous waves.
The Irish diaspora–now tightly interwoven into the fabric of American culture– faced many of the same challenges, suspicions, and stereotypes as today’s immigrants.
This is important because a common line of the modern immigration-skeptic argument is that previous waves were fundamentally different from the current one because those immigrants had positive attributes that today’s new arrivals lack. This creates a separation between the imagined “good” immigrant of previous centuries and the “bad” immigrant of the 21st century.
For example, in attempting to differentiate recent Hispanic migration from that of older groups, political scientist Samuel Huntington favorably quoted Lionel Sosa’s description of Hispanic cultural traits as: “mistrust of people outside the family; lack of initiative, self-reliance, and ambition; low priority for education; acceptance of poverty as a virtue necessary for entrance into heaven.” More recently (and more crudely), Ann Coulter authored a book centered on this premise.
This description is eerily similar to characterizations of 19th-century Irish immigrants. In his book The Boston Irish: A Political History, historian Thomas H. O’Connor notes that the majority of Irish Catholic immigrants were perceived as being deeply clannish, parochial, and suspicious of enterprise and innovation, on the whole “more influenced by the appeals of continuity and tradition than calls for change and innovation.”
Despite this dire prognosis, the Irish in America, made their way up the economic ladder into the middle class within two generations. Indeed, in his book Wherever the Green is Worn, historian Tim Pat Coogan notes that by the late 1990s, up to 30% of all American Fortune 500 CEOs were of Irish descent. This begs the question: why should we believe that identical cultural claims made against the current groups of immigrants will prove correct?
Immigration will not fundamentally alter the political balance in America.
The purported political inclinations of immigrants and their descendants have also been perceived through a determinist lens. On the left, some expect these changes to usher in a new era of progressive dominance. On the right, it is often taken as a given that these trends will strain social cohesion and fundamentally alter the nature of American politics.
Still, fears (or hopes) that immigrant groups will irreversibly tilt the country towards one party are unfounded. O’Connor writes that it took several decades and great reluctance for the Irish to organize into a cohesive political front. Today, other leading experts on Irish in America argue that the Irish vote is split between the parties, with some arguing that there is no longer a distinctively Irish American bloc. Indeed, Coogan bemoans that the robust Irish-American diaspora has not worked to Ireland’s benefit regarding U.S. foreign policy.
What’s more, the one-size-fits-all mentality regarding immigrant political inclinations has proven patently false, as the Irish test case can demonstrate. Even during their heyday as consistent Democratic voters, many Irish-Americans clashed with their party on social issues, most famously in the case of racially integrated bussing programs. Today, many newer immigrant groups are assumed to be a liberal constituency, when much like the Irish immigrants before them, they are often more moderate than progressive voters.
As recent trends in Hispanic and Asian voting patterns demonstrate, immigrant voters and their descendants can’t be neatly tied to any one party–and as history has taught us, likely never will be.
The largely negative and often misguided stereotypes assigned to the Irish diaspora could easily have stymied their experience in–and contributions to–the U.S., had they not worked hard to disprove these preconceived notions. The similarities between these 19th century stereotypes and those used to describe today’s new immigrants in the U.S. is nothing short of jarring. If we should learn anything from the Irish experience, it’s that immigrant groups are not a monolith, and treating them as such undermines the myriad benefits they can bring to American society.