Irish fight for reform of immigration

Thousands of Irish-Americans will arrive in Washington 10 days before St. Patrick’s Day to lobby members of Congress to reform immigration laws.

The Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR) organized the March 7 event and expects as many as 4,000 people to attend, many of them traveling to D.C. by bus from the heavily Irish communities of New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

Several members of Congress, including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who are writing an immigration bill, spoke at a similar rally last year, as did presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). ILIR Chairman Niall O’Dowd hopes to offer a similar lineup next week.

“They’re pretty powerful,” said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a member of the Friends of Ireland caucus in the House who credited the Irish lobby as a “major force” in winning immigration reforms in 1986.

ILIR’s executive director, Kelly Fincham, said the group’s focus this year is on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), since Pelosi would be capable of bringing an immigration reform bill to the floor. She said about 200 members of the group are expected to travel to Washington next week from San Francisco.

O’Dowd said the group supported the Kennedy-McCain bill introduced last year and will be pressing members of Congress to move that legislation this year. O’Dowd said he expects the two senators to introduce their legislation in the next two weeks.

The Irish lobby can make a difference by reminding members of Congress of the diversity of immigrants, according to Stacy Terrel of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization. ILIR estimates there are 50,000 unauthorized Irish immigrants in the U.S., many of whom overstayed tourist visas and want to remain in the country. That number is dwarfed by estimates on the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

“I’m thrilled they’re coming,” said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum. She said participants last year caught the attention of members of Congress and staff by marching through office buildings wearing green-and-white T-shirts bearing the slogan, “Legalize the Irish.”

O’Dowd said McCain credited the group with changing the minds of four or five senators last year.

That said, ILIR has not convinced all of its traditional allies to support legislation creating a pathway for unauthorized immigrants to receive citizenship. O’Dowd described Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) as a friend of the group on other issues, but said it was disappointed with his views on immigration.

King, whose parents hail from Ireland, said the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001. The U.S. no longer can afford to turn a blind eye to illegal immigrants, and it also cannot carve out an exception for the Irish, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee said.

“You can’t be saying, ‘We’re looking just at Arabs and Muslims and look the other way at Irish immigrants or any other group,’” King said.

He acknowledged the differences over immigration have caused friction with some Irish groups. “I used to get their awards. Now I’m public enemy No. 1 for some people,” King said.

He noted that in the past, when there was fighting in Northern Ireland, there was a fear that Irish citizens deported could be detained or even tortured if they were sent home. King also pointed to the growing Irish economy, which many believe has cooled Irish immigration to the U.S.

Despite the strong economy, O’Dowd said Irish people still want to emigrate to the U.S. because of longstanding personal connections.

“There’s a 200-year history that isn’t going to go away anytime soon,” he said. “Irish people are still fascinated and still want to come to America.”

That history lives on in one Irish immigrant with whom the Hill spoke through ILIR. Brian, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of deportation, works as a plumber in New York and originally came to the U.S. to visit an uncle. He overstayed a tourist visa and will have been in the U.S. for nine years in April. Brian married another Irish immigrant in 2005, and the couple had a baby three weeks ago

“We could go back and do just as well in Ireland, but we like this country,” Brian said.