This St. Patrick’s Day, as I listen to my favorite Irish music, drink my favorite Irish beer, and eat my favorite “Irish” food, I remember we celebrate Ireland because the Irish came here as immigrants attempting to escape a humanitarian horror… and were feared, unwanted, and unwelcome.
I take my truck to the dealer for some work. After handing over my keys I walk into the waiting area – a small room with a pot of coffee, a bunch of magazines, and a television on the wall blaring CNN. The only other waiting customer is a woman with her head buried in a fast food bag.
I’ve brought the book Teacher Man with me, a memoir by the Irishman Frank McCort. In the chapter I’m reading, McCort is describing an ongoing struggle: He was born in America, but raised in Ireland. When he returns to work in New York, he is considered an Irish immigrant. But when he returns to study in Dublin, he is labeled a Yankee. He is a a foreigner in both the land of his birth and the land of his roots.
As I try to focus on the story over the sound of the news, more customers make their way in and sit down around me: A very old man in an old cap and oversized sunglasses, and a well-to-do couple who look like they are close to retirement.
After a few minutes they start the small talk. Then a story on the news laments the price of gas, and the woman with the fast food observes out loud that the cost of gas is messed up.
The husband of the couple agrees with her, then says that the culprit is the ever increasing demand for gas versus the supply.
Then fast-food lady drops the bomb:
“Well, you know the main reason for the high supply is all the foreigners who live in this country. They come over here and drive all their cars and use up all the gas. Get rid of the aliens, and you get rid of half the demand right there!”
My reading freezes in the middle of a sentence, but I don’t look up. Without a moment of thought, the husband agrees. I wonder if they are talking about all foreigners, or just illegal immigrants.
The husband clears up any confusion:
“And then of course there are also the illegal aliens who come here. They want to work? Okay… fine. Put ‘em in a uniform and ship ‘em off to Iraq and that’ll put ‘em to work.”
Then something is said about how that will keep ‘em from wanting to come over here or something. But my brain locks up for a second in shock and I miss it. Besides, now they are talking about immigrants, oil, and war in the Middle East.
I decide not to jump in and tell them my father is an immigrant petroleum engineer from Iraq.
It won’t be until I am driving away an hour later when I’ll think of something clever I should have said. Instead I grip the edges of my book a little tighter, and this son of an Iraqi immigrant keeps reading the story of Irish immigrant, while sitting in a room full of people who don’t like immigrants.