Since our last issue the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR) has picked up enormous momentum. The ILIR was founded last December to raise the voice for the estimated 40,000 to 50,000 undocumented Irish people in the United States. Since the original meeting in Manhattan on December 9, a series of town-hall meetings have taken place in Yonkers, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Queens and San Francisco. Support has been in the thousands and given hope to many who felt there was nobody or no organization to represent them. The ILIR has also secured the services of a Washington, D.C. based lobbying firm that will act on a pro-bono basis.
The McCain/Kennedy bill, introduced last May in the Senate by Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy proposes a guest-worker program that would grant undocumented residents legal status. It has been strongly endorsed by ILIR and the Irish government. The ILIR is against the Sensenbrenner-sponsored bill in the House of Representatives that would criminalize undocumented aliens and make them subject to jail sentences if it was discovered that they were working without permits.
Since September 11, 2001, the life of an undocumented person has become increasingly difficult. Before the terrorist attacks, undocumented Irish could enter and leave the country and acquire and renew driving licenses without too much difficulty. Those days are now well and truly over as ultra stringent immigration procedures make international travel almost impossible, while driving licenses are now only issued to people with social security numbers. Ciaran Staunton, a founding member for the Irish Immigration Reform Movement in Boston in the 1980s and ILIR board member, has praised the undocumented Irish who have remained in America. “You people have stayed the course. You come into these meetings as undocumented residents, but you’re leaving as political activists.”
The first town-hall meeting took place in Yonkers, and when over a thousand people turned up to support the fledgling group, ILIR knew they were needed in the Irish community.
The first meeting outside New York took place in Philadelphia where several hundred people pledged their support. In Philadelphia, Niall O’Dowd, ILIR chairman and founding publisher of The Irish Voice and Irish America, met many undocumented people who epitomize the terrible situation faced by undocumented immigrants. “One young woman with a small baby told me how her greatest wish was to bring her new child home to her parents in Ireland who were too elderly to travel. That was now impossible, and her only option seemed to be to move her family back home lock stock and barrel – and give up the successful life she and her husband had built up in Philadelphia.” Top Republican strategist and New York state Attorney Grant Lally was named as president of the organization at the Philadelphia meeting.
Similar tales were all too familiar at the Boston meeting, where despite the 20-degree weather, over 1,000 hardy souls were in attendance. Father John McCarthy of the Irish Pastoral Center in the city summed up why this reform is so badly needed. “A parent dies in Ireland, but their child is afraid to return to Ireland in fear that they won’t get back. We deal with the effects of this – depression, alcoholism and suicide – at the Irish Pastoral Center. It is a terrible crisis, but all is not lost”
The reform effort was again taken up at a meeting on Friday February 17 in Woodside, Queens. The group got a major boost when New York Senator Charles Schumer pledged his support to ILIR and its quest to secure legal status for the undocumented Irish in the U.S. Schumer, a longstanding friend of the Irish community, is one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress. “Kennedy/McCain will be worked on by all of us to get the best possible result,” Schumer said of the bill. “Those who are here in an undocumented way must have a path towards earned citizenship.”
Also at the meeting were representatives of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Governor George Pataki. Spitzer’s aide urged those in the audience who had been victimized by scam immigration practitioner Christine Owad to seek relief from the attorney general’s office.
The first West Coast meeting was held on February 23 in San Francisco where 1,021 Irish-Americans attended to express their solidarity.
The next big date on the calendar is March 8 (as we go to press). ILIR representatives will be spending all day in Washington with pre-arranged visits with senators and House representatives. There will also be several press conferences and rallies to lobby for the undocumented Irish. However, it is the public support that will be key to efforts in the capital, and to that end buses will travel to D.C. from New York, Boston, Connecticut and Philadelphia, while delegations will fly in from Cleveland, Chicago and California.
The human and emotional aspect to this issue is never far from the surface. An undocumented Irish mother living in New York told Irish Voice reporter Georgina Brennan, “I feel like my children are being robbed of their Irish heritage because they don’t know where they come from. I am looking forward to this [ILIR meeting], because without this hope the Irish community is lost.” With hope comes action, and with action comes reform. To find out more on how you can support ILIR, visit their site at www.irishlobbyusa.org or call 718 598 7530. ♦