GALWAY, Ireland -- The intense debate over immigration reform in the U.S. has riveted many in this bucolic area in the west of Ireland. That's because in addition to millions of Hispanic aliens, a significant number of Irish would benefit from immigration clarity. Just ask anyone in the Woodside section of Queens, N.Y.The census estimates that there are nearly 35 million Americans of Irish descent living in America, and many of them had ancestors who fled to the United States to save their lives. The vicious Irish famine reached its height in 1847 as hundreds of thousands of starving people boarded so-called "coffin ships" to come to the USA. Many died on those ships -- victims of disease on the long voyage. Their bodies were often thrown overboard into the sea.
In Ireland itself, more than a million people died from hunger and disease during the famine years. The British controlled the country and, incredibly, exported grain to London even as Irish children were dying in the streets. British soldiers actually had to guard the grain stores, killing the Irish who stormed the storage facilities.
Thus, there are still deep wounds in this country of fewer than 5 million. More than a few Irish noticed a visiting American news commentator and asked about the proposed immigration reform. All favored it because of the sensitivity to the suffering of poor people.
The United States today is a far different place from what it was in the mid-19th century, when our vast land needed folks to settle and expand into the west. Then, there was no such thing as an "illegal alien." If you physically made it here, you were an American. Simply showing up entitled you to pursue the dream of prosperity.
But today our country is fragile. The economy is stagnant, and social problems dominate the landscape. Back when my people arrived from Galway, in the 1840s, there was little in the way of social welfare and entitlements. You either earned your way or wound up in the street. America did not support immigrants; it simply gave them a chance.
What has not changed is the humanity of most Americans. People without an agenda realize that most illegal aliens are here to feed their families, not to cause trouble. But we also realize that our federal government has allowed and sometimes encouraged immigration chaos, which has damaged the fabric of the nation. You simply cannot allow more than 10 million people to occupy your territory without any accountability. And that's what has happened.
I told the good people in western Ireland who approached me that I hope a fair but tough immigration bill passes this year -- one that will put an end to the porous southern border and make undocumented aliens earn their citizenship over an extended period of time.
The most powerful nation on Earth should be able to pass a fair, effective immigration law that combines compassion with responsibility and does not injure hardworking Americans who are taxed up to here.
We SHOULD be able to do that. It will be shameful if we don't.
Veteran TV news anchor Bill O'Reilly is host of the Fox News show ''The O'Reilly Factor.'' Visit his website at www.billoreilly.com. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/billoreilly.