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, NY.

The census estimates that there are nearly 35 million Americans of Irish descent currently living in America, and many of them had ancestors who fled to the United States to literally save their lives. The vicious Irish famine reached its height in 1847 as hundreds of thousands of starving people boarded so called “coffin ships.” Many died on those ships – victims of disease on the long voyage.

In Ireland, 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 had to guard the grain stores, killing the Irish who stormed the storage facilities. There are still deep wounds in this country of less 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 U.S. is a far different place than 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 social welfare or entitlements. You either earned your way or you 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 cause trouble. But we also realize that our federal government has allowed and sometimes encouraged immigration chaos that has damaged the fabric of the nation. You simply cannot allow more than 10 million people to occupy your territory without any accountability. That’s what has happened. I told the good people in Ireland who approached me that I hoped a fair, but tough, immigration bill would pass 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 an immigration law that combines compassion with responsibility and does not injure Americans who are taxed up to here. We should be able to do that. It will be shameful if we don’t.

Bill O’Reilly is host of the Fox News show “The O’Reilly Factor” and is an author and columnist.