On Friday, revelers will gather and march in festive parades throughout the country to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. This tradition predates the founding of the United States and its longevity speaks to the rootedness and prominence of the country’s Irish American population.

But the pageantry and pride on display on St. Patrick’s Day speak to something more than a shared ethnic identity. They are tied to the Irish immigrant experience, which is a crucial part of Irish American culture. Irish Americans have long used St. Patrick’s Day parades to demand opportunities for immigration from their native land, and one of these campaigns even opened doors for immigrants from across the globe. Its success is a reminder that immigration doesn’t need to be a zero sum game, especially because the inclusion of diverse communities of immigrants has long been a boon for the United States.

After the Irish Famine in the 1840s spurred over 1 million Irish immigrants to the United States, St. Patrick’s Day parades became an important facet of Irish American life. The parades grew in scale during the 19th century, combining Irish pride and American patriotism. Such community cohesion was particularly important in the face of nativism and anti-Irish hostility, which was often violent and degrading.

As more Jews, Italians and Eastern Europeans arrived at the turn of the century, policymakers began to write racial and ethnic discrimination into the immigration laws to ensure white dominance. By the 1920s, when Congress imposed a highly restrictive quota system, the Irish had gone from being marginalized to being one of the most favored groups because they could lay a claim to “whiteness.” That meant they, like other Northern and Western Europeans, continued to enjoy privileged status when it came to visas.

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