December 10, 2006
The City Life
How Green Was My Rally
By LAWRENCE DOWNES

"The Irish have a just cause"

To roars and applause and whistles so loud and shrill they stabbed the ears even more than his double-bagpipe escort, Senator Charles Schumer swept into the packed church auditorium, levitating on a cloud of affection. For another entrance as grand, you’d probably have to go back to Groucho Marx in “Animal Crackers,” borne in on a litter by bare-chested natives and multiple choruses of “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.”

This happy moment was a rally by Irish immigrants the other night at St. Barnabas Church in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx. Mr. Schumer wore a green tie and that grin of his, so wide you could drive on it from Galway to Dublin. He was there to announce the miraculous rebirth of immigration reform, courtesy of the new Democratic Congress. But first he did what politicians always do before a throng of happy Hibernians. After a few courteous preliminaries and a line from St. Matthew’s Gospel, he committed Irish identity theft.

“My sister’s name,” he let slip in a lusty roar, “is Fran ... Schumer ... McNULTY!”

Cheers and more cheers.

“Up Mayo!” the senator cried. “Up Leitrim!”

He was just getting started. He introduced an aide, the one who named his daughters Siobhan, Fiona, Maeve and Nora. The love spilled over, like foam on a Guinness.

“The more Irish there are in America, the better we all are!” Mr. Schumer declared, repeating a line he had caught some flak about a few months before. Some non-Irish immigrants had grumbled about how unlikely it would be to hear another group’s name tucked into that equation. They had a point about ethnic favoritism, though Mr. Schumer, who sweet-talks everybody, was perhaps not the best example of it.

Mr. Schumer’s final bit of stagecraft was in Gaelic. “Tiocfaidh ar la!” he bellowed. It means “our day will come” and is pronounced, to the senator’s evident gratitude, “Chucky-AR-LA.” With that he tied the ribbon on the gift wrap of his speech. The wave of cheers crested and fell, and Mr. Schumer departed into the windy night.

It’s now a regular thing for big-ticket politicians to go to Woodlawn, where the Irish pubs and delis have been struggling as people go back home to ride the Celtic Tiger, as Ireland’s resurgent economy is known. With Irish-American neighborhoods in decline, Irish illegal immigrants have rallied urgently to the cause of friendlier immigration laws. They are a drop of 50,000 in a bucket of 12 million illegal immigrants, but as Mr. Schumer’s special blessing showed, they command attention.

He is far from the only politician to be drawn to the white, English-speaking sliver of the immigration problem. That fondness for Irish audiences helps reinforce the odd sense of solipsism surrounding the Irish immigrant lobby. When you hear the chairman of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, Niall O’Dowd, vow to fight “to get what is rightfully ours” — more visas for the Irish — you can’t help wondering how quickly such words would get a Latino banished to the militant fringe.

“We Are America” is the Latinos’ and Asians’ cry. The well-organized Irish don’t feel the need to say that. Their slogan, on T-shirts and the Irish Lobby’s Web site, is blunt: “Legalize the Irish.”

The Irish have a just cause, but I only wish they and their many friends would preach the gospel of immigration reform in a bigger tent. It is, after all, every immigrant group’s fate to start out in this country unloved, as the Irish are only too eager to remind us.

 


 

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