Sarah Matilda White, 1853

More Irish seem to arrive here every day,
like rats fleeing a ship that’s going down.
Their women troll our streets for men at night;
their children run wild all day in shanty-town.

They come in coffin ships, with little more
than faith and hunger. Ignorant, unskilled,
they seem hell-bent on making themselves less,
like prodigal sons content to live in swill.

People who have nothing will rob the poor
to feed their children. Now I lock the house
and clutch my purse, as fearful as the rich.
They’re starved of hope, desperate, and unwashed.

But I do like that flock of Irish nuns
who swoop like crows, catching truants by the ear
and marching them to school, then wake the tarts
to steer them toward respectable careers.

They are taking thousands of white fugitive slaves
who can’t imagine better lives beyond
full stomachs, work, and a hovel called home,
and teaching them to dream of a free dawn!



The Irish famine refugees met with vehement racism from nativeborn American whites when they arrived in America. Many newspaper articles and cartoons depicted them as inferior to blacks. Father John Hughes (1797–1864), a fierce advocate of abolition and the rights of Irish immigrants, was the first Roman Catholic bishop, and then archbishop, of New York. He fought strenuously on behalf of the Irish, forcing reforms in the anti-Catholic public schools, inviting Roman Catholic religious orders to come to the city, and instituting a system of parochial schools (including four universities).

Copyright © 2015 Marilyn Nelson. Published with permission of Namelos Editions.

we are not that kind of country.

We are sanctuary for the hungry,

the homeless, the huddled,

held together by an idea

our immigrant fathers believed in.

Rendered, it meant independence.

Pursued, it kindled war, ordinance,

a fighting chance. Forty thousand

musket balls, by themselves, did not

shape the boundaries on which we

map our days. To draw our borders,

we needed more than firecakes.

More than a pound of meat

with bone and gristle,

or salt fish and a gill of peas.

We needed the faith and grit of people

who were not yet Americans.

To be an American is to

recognize the sacrifice

of the widow and the orphan;

it is to understand the weft of tent

cities expecting caravans,

and the heft of a child in a camp

not meant for children, or sitting

before a judge awaiting judgement.

What do we say to the native

whose lands we now inhabit?

What do we say to our immigrant

fathers who held certain truths

to be self-evident?

Do we now still pledge to each

other our lives, our fortunes,

our sacred honor.

There are no kings in America.

Only gilded men we can topple

again and again.

Copyright © Aileen Cassinetto. This poem originally appeared in Vox Populi (July 4, 2020). Used with permission of the author.

While they wait in long lines, legs shifting,
fingers growing tired of holding handrails,
pages of paperwork, give them patience.
Help them to recall the cobalt Mediterranean
or the green valleys full of vineyards and sheep.
When peoples’ words resemble the buzz
of beehives, help them to hear the music
of home, sung from balconies overflowing
with woven rugs and bundled vegetables.
At night, when the worry beads are held
in one palm and a cigarette lit in the other,
give them the memory of their first step
onto solid land, after much ocean, air and clouds,
remind them of the phone call back home saying,
We arrived. Yes, thank God we made it, we are here.

Copyright © 2011 Lory Bedikian. This poem originally appeared in The Book of Lamenting (Anhinga Press, 2011). Used with permission of the author.


People have been trying to kill me since I was born,
a man tells his son, trying to explain
the wisdom of learning a second tongue.

It's the same old story from the previous century
about my father and me.

The same old story from yesterday morning
about me and my son.

It's called "Survival Strategies
and the Melancholy of Racial Assimilation."

It's called "Psychological Paradigms of Displaced Persons,"

called "The Child Who'd Rather Play than Study."

Practice until you feel
the language inside you, says the man.

But what does he know about inside and outside,
my father who was spared nothing
in spite of the languages he used?

And me, confused about the flesh and soul,
who asked once into a telephone,
Am I inside you?

You're always inside me, a woman answered,
at peace with the body's finitude,
at peace with the soul's disregard
of space and time.

Am I inside you? I asked once
lying between her legs, confused
about the body and the heart.

If you don't believe you're inside me, you're not,
she answered, at peace with the body's greed,
at peace with the heart's bewilderment.

It's an ancient story from yesterday evening

called "Patterns of Love in Peoples of Diaspora,"

called "Loss of the Homeplace
and the Defilement of the Beloved,"

called "I Want to Sing but I Don’t Know Any Songs."

From Behind My Eyes by Li-Young Lee. Copyright © 2008 by Li-Young Lee. Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton. All rights reserved.