In May of 1806, over two hundred years ago, my great-great-grandfather, Constantine McHugh, sailed for the United States from Sligo, Ireland. Con returned to Ireland and his family in 1811, and then came back to New York in 1819 with one of his brothers. Six years later, living and working in Boston, Constantine received this letter from his brother Andrew who worked on a farm in New Jersey.
August the 6, 1825 Monmouth County, New Jersey
I write these few lines to you hoping they will find you in good health as I and my family is at present thanks be to god for it. I received a letter from you last spring which gave me a deal of pleasure to hear from you . I think you must receive some of the letters that I write to you and it cannot be possible that you are so neglectful as to send me an answer. I received a letter from brother Thady last week which grieves me to the heart to think that he his mother and Patrick is fairly suffering. They sent for me to go there. They never will see me there unless I could go there today and back tomorrow. But still it would do my heart good to see Glenawley. If you will assist me as brothers ought to assist their parents. We will get them out of misery.
You live in the city you have a better chance of sending for them than I have if you will and send all three of them to me. They never will be any more expense to you or if you will pay half the passage, I will pay the other. I am bare of money now, but has got property enough for two hundred dollars. But I can borrow money to pay for half their passage. I am in hopes that if you will send for one you will send for all three. If not send for one, do not go sending for brother and leave mother and Patrick do not be guilty of the like. If you do not got money enough to send for all three of them, I am sure you can borrow it. Brother Thady can pay the whole expense in one year. I can find him work enough.
If he cannot pay it in one year, I will make you safe for it. Mother sent me a lock of her hair to let me know she was living yet, therefore I thought it proper to send you one half of it. Write to me as soon as you get this letter and let me know what you will do. No more at present but remain your loving brother till death.
Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find proof that they succeeded in rescuing the rest of the family. I like to think everybody was able to escape the deplorable conditions common in Ireland at the time. One thing I’m certain of, though, is the common impulse to do the right thing for family. When politicians and private bigots today talk about “chain migration,” they demonize a natural human tendency.
The citizens of Boston didn’t welcome the Irish immigrants in the 1800s, and too many mean spirited people do the same today. When the Irish arrived in the United States, they took the most menial jobs , cooking, cleaning, and digging. Today, new immigrants do pretty much the same, taking the jobs employers can’t otherwise fill.
In the 1800s American borders were pretty much open to anyone who could raise money for passage. Today, of necessity, the laws are much more restrictive. Depending on which country a person emigrates from, sponsoring a family member can take fifteen or more years. The rules are complicated, but the Migration Policy Institute estimates that DREAMers would be capable of sponsoring an average of 0.65 to 1.03 family members. We are not in great danger of being too charitable or being overrun by relatives.