Immigrant Terrorists

April 23, 2013 at 10:34 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A friend from Zürich said recently in an email that she was waiting for me to write something about the Boston Marathon bombings, but seriously, what’s left to say? Even now, more than a week later, the statistical odds of turning on the radio and hearing about anything else are close to zero. Today’s endlessly repeated secular antiphon is “…charged and could face the death penalty.”

I have been thinking, however, about a related matter,–efforts by Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa and others to link the Boston bombings to the current conversation about U.S. immigration reform. “While we don’t yet know the immigration status of people who have terrorized the communities in Massachusetts, when we find out, it will help shed light on the weaknesses of our system,” Grassley stated in opening remarks in a Senate hearing on immigration last Friday. Since then, some of our more distinguished news outlets have begun using the felicitous phrase,  “immigrant terrorists.”

I can’t help wondering whether Senator Grassley and his allies, as they attempt to link contemporary immigrants with terrorism, are aware of the rich history of  “immigrant terrorism” by the white-ethnic ancestors of some of our most conservative, not to say right-wing, politicians. I’m thinking specifically of the Draft Riots of July, 1863, in which mobs of white-ethnic immigrants, the majority of them Irish Catholics, rioted across Manhattan in response to the implementation of the draft law passed the previous March. According to historian James M. McPherson, at least 120 civilians were killed, at least eleven black men were lynched, and two thousand people were injured. Property damage in today’s dollars is estimated at between fifteen and seventy-five million dollars.

Like most acts of violence, the causes of the Draft Riots are complex. A major factor was the Draft Law’s three hundred dollar “commutation” fee which allowed individuals to escape being drafted by paying the equivalent, in today’s money, of $11,100. The vast majority of New York Irish had emigrated during or after the Irish Potato Famine a decade before and were desperately poor, living in the basements of filthy tenements, and dying of diseases like typhus and diphtheria. They could about as easily pay eleven thousand dollars as they could pay eleven million. They were also convinced that emancipated slaves would take their already lousy-paying jobs. Indeed, the shipping industry had not long before the riots used black men to break a dockworkers strike. It also probably wasn’t much help that an ardently abolitionist British government had used the Potato Famine to force poor Irish farmers in huge numbers to give up their acreage and emigrate (many of them to New York City).

By mentioning these motivating factors I do not in any sense mean to justify the New York Draft Riots, which historians regularly characterize as “the largest civil insurrection in American history.” Violence is violence.

I do wonder, however, what the results might have been if Republican legislators had used those riots to exclude white-ethnic immigrants from the U.S. in the years to follow. They would never have done so, of course; they needed such immigrants to continue building the railroads and bridges and sky-scrapers that would house and otherwise enable the Anglo-American barons of industrial capitalism.

But if the politicians had outlawed further Irish immigration, who knows what distinguished figures might not have made it onto the American stage. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, you say? Indeed. But also Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan and a number of other contemporary Irish-American right-wingers who will, one suspects, have all too much to say about “immigrant terrorists” in the days to come.


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  1. Thank you, Marion! I really needed this as I am sick of hearing the bigoted comments that assume that all Muslims and/or immigrants are terrorists, comments I hear from white male Irish and Italian American Christians. Of course, there is also the Oklahoma bombing by an American-born white male Christian. Don’t get me started!!!! Nancy


    • You’re more than welcome, Nancy!


      • Good stuff….my immigrant friends are all Muslims…and VERY fine
        folks. God bless Fr. Joe Bracken of Xavier’s Brugeman Center…he helps
        out at our suburban local parish for decades now, and again spoke of
        the wonderful muslim people he knows, this past week. Pat Hill


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