I spent most of today with a resilient young woman, a former student, who is trying to do what she can to pursue a nursing degree. Several scholarships in hand, she is still short $5,000 a semester. She lacks the nine digits of a social security number that would make it possible for her to find a part-time job to help make up the difference. The nine digits that would enable her to apply for a driver’s license so she could drive across town to attend college. She tells me she’s washing dishes, and that her mother’s on anti-depressants from Mexico. She tells me she married an American without realizing that it wouldn’t help. She’d still be at the back of the line, except there is no line for kids like her – in reality, she’d have to ‘go back’ to Mexico, a country she doesn’t know, because she left it when she was a baby. She also tells me that her parents can’t make the house payments any more. And I tell her to hang in there. Hang in there? It’s an inexcusable situation in America in 2009. It’s obscene.

Here I sit, an immigrant myself, a lucky white one with freckles, the pre-requisite red in my hair, and the remnants of a County Antrim accent shared by the likes of Liam Neeson. From the little country that could and did with its Riverdance, its Bono, The Cranberries, The Chieftains, Sinead O’Connor, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Seamus Heaney, Van Morrison …. Yeats, for God’s sake!! Land of Nobel prizewinners and women with tempers as wild as the sea. Even here, in Arizona – where the very idea of America seems to be unraveling with its anti-immigrant atmosphere – it seems that everybody’s Irish on March 17th. I’m bemused by the sight of plastic Paddys washing down corned beef and cabbage with their mugs of green beer on a windy March afternoon. Not a decent pint of Guiness in sight. Corned beef? Who eats that? Seriously. Who eats corned beef and cabbage? It’s as American as Lucky Charms cereal, or Irish Spring soap.
Not that we Irish don’t have our own issues. I don’t recall a Halloween from my childhood, when my mother didn’t produce an apple tart, baked with a ring inside. To get the ring was a sure sign that you’d marry. Likewise, there was the widely-held belief that if you peeled an entire apple, and threw the long peel over your left shoulder, it would land in the shape of the initial of your future love. But I digress …
The only beef I ever had back home was far from corned. We had the best of sirloin from Stewart’s Butchers, a place with sawdust on the floor and young butchers in black and white striped aprons. The only cabbage we ever had was fried with a bit of good bacon from Golden’s shop. We never had cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. That was a religious kind of holiday where it wasn’t uncommon to see shamrocks wilting in the buttonholes of suits. Our neighbors went to mass, all 11 of them, as I recall, and the Protestants really didn’t bother with the holiday at all. Admittedly, it deteriorated into a bit of a pub crawl when I was older, at teacher training college in Belfast. We’d head to Byrne’s pub on the Ballymena line, trying not to think of the publican who had been shot to death in that very place. His wife, Mrs. Byrne, pulled out all the stops on St. Patrick’s Day, with an Irish stew reminiscent of the kind of thing you’d expect Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne to scarf down between takes of “The Quiet Man.” Lamb, onions, carrots, and potatoes. Bland to the American tastebuds, I’m sure, but for us, when it was combined with an aromatic turf fire, a hot whiskey, and Big Mickey in the back bar, playing The Lonesome Boatman on the tin whistle, it was big and bold in flavor, and we could understand why so many Americans loved our country, which is why I’m a little bitter tonight.
I’m thinking of an aspiring nurse, a beautiful, intelligent young woman whose parents carried her across the border when she was a few months old, a young woman who pledged allegiance to the flag of these United States every day at school, a young woman who now volunteers at Hospice of the Valley, who likes to help others, from children struggling with their ABCs to friends with babies, a young woman who is out of luck on all fronts. I can’t help her. I can only feel guilty that I married an American long before the laws changed. Simply put, I’d overstayed a work visa following a stint upstate New York as a camp counselor. I got married. The rest is history.
I’m still a citizen of Ireland with a green card in my wallet, and will remain as such until the DREAM comes true for those kids who have worked so hard to be all they can be, in and for America. Until the DREAM Act passes, I cannot hold my hand over my heart in deference to the flag of a country that doesn’t embrace children – those without social security numbers and those who are trying to fulfill the dreams of their parents who want only the very best for them.
As I prepare to open this new school, I make a mental note that ‘good citizenship’ will not be a criterion for success on a report card. I won’t lie to the kids, but I’ll remind them that this America that we aspire to, this dream we share, is held aloft by an immigrant spirit, proud, and undaunted.
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