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The real meaning of St. Patrick's Day

Immigration is central to the Irish-American experience. As we celebrate St. Patrick's Day, we acknowledge the achievements of all traditions.

Have you heard the stories about the hardworking immigrants who came to America to make new lives for themselves and yet were accused of being lazy, unruly and criminals whose only goal was to take jobs away from the good people of the United States?

I am talking, of course, about the Irish.

Today, with 32 million Irish-Americans making up about 10 percent of the US population, few of us think of the Irish as immigrants. But it was not too long ago that the Irish were reviled and ridiculed by politicians and the mainstream press. As we celebrate St. Patrick's Day, then, we should take a moment, amid the green beer and the merriment, to remember just how central immigration really is to the Irish-American experience.

It is central to my personal experience as well: Though I now have the privilege of serving as the president and chief executive of Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider and private employer, I was born in East Limerick to a family of very modest means. Like so many other dreamers before me, I moved to the United States in search of a better life. As I watched the parade marching down Fifth Avenue last year - a parade in which I had the pleasure of serving as Grand Marshal - I could not help but think about the millions of men, women and children who left behind homes and families across the globe for a shot at the American dream.

I am not suggesting that the question of immigration isn't a complicated one or that those who argue for a policy that carefully vets each newcomer are necessarily wrong. I merely wish, as we celebrate immigrants like me and their contributions to America, to remind us all of two key facts.

The first is that the debate we are having now is not new. Thomas Nast, the infamous 19th-century cartoonist, gained his reputation, in part, by portraying the Irish immigrants as criminals and marauders. "Want ads" in the New York papers often specified that Irishmen need not apply. The immigrants braved these insults, worked hard and, before too long, redefined American culture. In the 1840s, for example, Boston was a town of slightly more than 100,000 people; by the end of the mass Irish migration of the decade it had absorbed 37,000 newcomers, among them the great-grandparents of the future US president John F. Kennedy.

It is worth remembering both the animosity the Irish, Jews and Italians experienced upon arrival and their eventual success at redefining American culture when we think of today's immigrants arriving from Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria and elsewhere.

This is no mere sentimental exercise: This month also brings the expiration date for Dreamers to renew their status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Many of these young immigrants, brought to the country as children, may face deportation unless Congress takes action. Having had the opportunity to come here, work hard and thrive, I know how precious the privilege of US citizenship truly is, but also how devastating it would be to the nation if we lost the ingenuity and dedication of the millions of newcomers who make it the great nation it is.

Which leads me to the second key fact to remember: While immigration is a mass phenomenon, immigrants are always and forever individuals. Anyone who imagines a shifty usurper who comes here to take away US jobs must also imagine someone like me, who got his start working on boats on the Manhattan docks and now oversees a health system that employs 66,000 people, many of whom - including some of our top physicians who heal hundreds of thousands of Americans every year - are immigrants themselves.

Given all that we Irish immigrants have achieved in the US, it is tempting to celebrate St. Patrick's Day by toasting our accomplishments. But as any immigrant will tell you, a single immigration story only makes sense in the larger context of all other immigration stories: the Irish and the Mexicans, the Indians and the Cubans, the Chinese and the Dominicans and everybody else. Today, we celebrate their achievements and their traditions as well.

This op-ed appeared in America Magazine.

"As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, then, we should take a moment, amid the green beer and the merriment, to remember just how central immigration really is to the Irish-American experience."
— Michael Dowling