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
“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.