An Irish Face on the Cause of Citizenship
By NINA BERNSTEIN
March 16, 2006
The New York Times (See front page image here)

Rory Dolan's, a restaurant in Yonkers, was packed with hundreds of illegal Irish immigrants on that rainy Friday night in January when the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform called its first meeting. Niall O'Dowd, the chairman, (pictured, right) soon had them cheering.

"You're not just some guy or some woman in the Bronx, you're part of a movement," Mr. O'Dowd told the crowd of construction workers, students and nannies. He was urging them to support a piece of Senate legislation that would let them work legally toward citizenship, rather than punishing them with prison time, as competing bills would.

For months, coalitions of Latino, Asian and African immigrants from 50 countries have been championing the same measure with scant attention, even from New York's Democratic senators. But the Irish struck out on their own six weeks ago, and as so often before in the history of American immigration policy, they have landed center stage.

Last week, when Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer declared their support for a new path to citizenship, and denounced criminal penalties recently passed by the House of Representatives, they did so not at the large, predominantly Hispanic immigrant march on Washington, but at the much smaller Irish rally held there the following day.

Some in the immigrant coalitions resent being passed over, and worry that the Irish are angling for a separate deal. Others welcome the clout and razzmatazz the Irish bring to a beleaguered cause. And both groups can point to an extraordinary Irish track record of lobbying triumphs, like the creation of thousands of special visas in the 1980's and 90's that one historian of immigration, Roger Daniels, calls "affirmative action for white Europeans."

Mainly, though, they marvel at the bipartisan muscle and positive spin the illegal Irish can still muster, even as their numbers dwindle to perhaps 25,000 to 50,000 across the country — those left behind by a tide of return migration to a now-prosperous Ireland.

This week, as the Senate Judiciary Committee wrestles with a comprehensive immigration bill, towns across the country are preparing to celebrate their Irish roots. On Friday, St. Patrick's Day, President Bush is to meet with Ireland's prime minister, Bertie Ahern, who has vowed to put the legalization of the Irish at the top of his agenda. And Irish Lobby volunteers are ready to leverage the attention, with "Legalize the Irish" T-shirts and pressure on senators like Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania, who is in a tight race against Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat of Irish ancestry.

The new Irish dynamic is all the more striking because the Republican Party is fiercely split over immigration, and many Democrats have hung back from the fray, judging the issue too hot to handle in an election year.

"They're still good at the game," said Linda Dowling Almeida, who teaches the history of Irish immigration at New York University. She and other historians noted that in the mid-19th century, Irish immigrants used the clout of urban political machines and leadership by the Roman Catholic Church to beat back a nativist movement that saw them as a threat to national security and American culture.

More recently, Mr. O'Dowd, the publisher of The Irish Voice, was himself part of a lobby that leaned on legislators with Irish heritage to engineer more than 48,000 visas for the Irish, legalizing many who had re-greened old Celtic neighborhoods in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

But much has changed. After 9/11, a groundswell of anger over illegal immigration converged with national security concerns, propelling a populist revolt across party lines. Immigration is now seen as a no-win issue in electoral politics. And both opponents and supporters of legalization take a more jaundiced view of the Irish role in the debate.

"They're essentially saying, 'Look, we're good European illegal immigrants,' " said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports the House and Senate measures that would turn "unlawful presence," now a civil violation, into a crime. "The reason they've been more successful is the same reason it appeals to editors — immigration nostalgia from 150 years ago."

He added: "Can they be bought off by a special program for a handful of remaining illegals? I'm not saying it's a good idea, but you just start talking about the old sod and singing 'Danny Boy,' and of course it's possible."

A special measure for the Irish would be hard to pass today, countered Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the New York office of Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization that has generally supported immigrant amnesties. In earlier campaigns, he recalled, an Irish lobby worked with other immigrant groups, and all won pieces of their agenda.

"It was extremely important for the optics on Capitol Hill," Mr. Chishti said. "The Irish were also very savvy about it at that time. They knew that they would get some special Irish treatment, but they also wanted to make it look like they were part of the immigrant coalition."

Today, the lobby's most crucial role, he said, may be changing the political calculus of Democrats who have shunned the immigration issue as a no-win choice between responding to Latinos and looking tough on immigration. Many Irish-Americans are swing voters, he said, and "it becomes sort of a tipping point for the Democratic Party."

For now, Mr. O'Dowd said, the Irish Lobby's focus is entirely on supporting the McCain-Kennedy bill, which would allow illegal immigrants who qualify to pay a $2,000 fine and work toward citizenship. But if no such measure emerges from Congress, he added, the Irish Lobby will push for any special arrangement it can get — "as will every other ethnic group in the country."

Special visas for the Irish "would be brilliant," said Valery O'Donnell, a house cleaner and single mother of 7-year-old twins who was at the Rory Dolan's meeting, and said she had lived in New York illegally for 13 years. "There's no harm in us. We're all out here to work hard."

But several immigrant advocates in New York said that even the hint of special treatment for the Irish would inflame the hurt feelings that began in February when Senator Schumer first spoke out on immigration at an Irish Lobby event in Woodside, Queens, after declining invitations by veteran immigrant organizations more representative of an estimated 700,000 illegal immigrants in the state. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 78 percent of the nation's nearly 12 million illegal immigrants are from Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America.

Spokesmen for the two senators said that their appearances had been determined only by what fit their schedules, and that their support for immigrants was not meant for a specific group.

Some immigrant leaders were not convinced. Juan Carlos Ruiz, the coordinator of the predominantly Hispanic rally of 40,000 held March 7 on Capitol Hill, said that only one senator had shown up there, without speaking: Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat. The next day, Mr. Ruiz said, when he and his 14-year-old son stopped by the Irish gathering of about 2,400 and realized that the speakers included Senators Edward M. Kennedy, John McCain, as well as Senators Clinton and Schumer, his son asked, "Why didn't the senators come to our rally?"

"I was heartbroken," Mr. Ruiz said. "I needed to explain to him: 'The immigrants of color, for these senators we are not important enough for them to make a space in their calendar.' "

He added: "The Irish are not at fault. They are suffering the same troubles that we are. But it is discrimination."

Monami Maulik, a leader in another coalition, Immigrant Communities in Action, echoed his sentiment. "For a lot of us, this is a current civil rights struggle," she said.

But when the phrase was repeated to Mr. O'Dowd, he countered: "It's not about that at all. It's about how you change the law." For years, he added, he has lobbied to win nearly lost causes, including helping to broker a ceasefire in Northern Ireland. "It's not about being fair, it's about being good," he said. "It's about getting it done."

Matthew Sweeney contributed reporting for this article.

 



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