Immigration

It Turns Out The Irish Are The “New Irish”

With millions of Irish immigrants in the U.S. – and tens of thousands undocumented – the Irish are stepping up and engaging seriously in the immigration reform debate.

When they think of immigration reform at all, most folks think about Mexicans.  Because of their visibility, their numbers, and the fact that they make up a huge percentage of those immigrants in the U.S. illegally, Mexicans have become the face of the immigration issue in America.  There are significant populations here from Central America, South America, the Caribbean, East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, African and other regions – and significant percentages of them are also undocumented – but for most Americans, when they say “immigrants,” they mean “Mexicans.”

Because of their numbers, their (predominant) religion, their vilification, and the stereotypes, some have taken to calling Mexicans the “New Irish” in terms of their immigration experience.

“¡Ask A Mexican!” columnist Gustavo Arellano put it this way:

The Irish were the Mexicans of the United States before the Mexicans.  Millions of them migrated to this country destitute, as indentured servants (the precursor to the Bracero program) and even as illegal immigrants…Gabachos here maligned the Irish for their Catholicism, their funny English, big families, and constant inebriation, stereotypes popularized by the mainstream press.

Go to Ellis Island and look at the display of anti-Irish immigrant memorabilia in the museum there and the connection is striking.  The Irish were depicted as a less-than-human, drunken, unruly Catholic mob of “invaders” that would never assimilate or succeed in America – and would bring us all down in the process.  That’s precisely what some in the anti-Mexican-immigration crowd is saying now.

But, it turns out labeling the Mexicans the “New Irish” was a little premature.  With millions of Irish immigrants in the U.S. – and tens of thousands in the ranks of the undocumented – the Irish are stepping up and engaging seriously in the immigration reform debate.

For a very long time, the vibrant Irish press and an advocacy group called the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR), have mobilized the Irish-American and Irish immigrant community in support of immigration reform that legalizes the undocumented and creates wider legal channels for immigrants to come here with visas and work legally. They have emerged as genuine leaders of the nationwide movement and are saying in the most polite and respectful of ways that the immigration issue isn’t just about Mexicans and Latinos.

Just this week, in a brilliant New York Times editorial decrying the lack of progress the Obama administration is making on their promise to reform immigration, the Irish and ILIR were said to be of throwing in the towel on reform this year:

At least one advocacy group, the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, has declared the dream of comprehensive reform dead. It is urging incremental change, with modest reforms like the Dream Act. Other groups may follow. It is too soon to give up.

Not so fast, Grey Lady.  While one of the co-founders of ILIR, Niall O’Dowd, an author and a columnist for the Irish Voice, declared immigration reform dead in an article last month, the current leadership of ILIR are not giving up so easily.

A three-city tour this week is rallying the Irish-American community to the immigration reform cause.  In conjunction with other prominent Irish-American organizations, including the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) and Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, Ciaran Staunton, co-founder and President of ILIR is traveling to Denver, Phoenix, and Tucson to send the message that “Immigration reform is as important to the Irish American community as it is to any other community,” according to ILIR’s press release.

From Thursday's Denver Daily News:

Speaking in Denver yesterday, Irish American Ciaran Staunton…said people often forget that of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in America, at least 50,000 of them are from Ireland.”

Staunton told the Denver Daily News before speaking at The Celtic Tavern in Denver: “There is no legal way for an Irish American in Denver to bring his cousin to America to work and to participate in the American dream.”

He points out that 15 percent of Coloradans have Irish heritage. Nationally, 40 million Americans have Irish heritage.

No white flag of surrender there.  But like a lot of other groups in the immigration fight, patience with the Obama administration is running thin.  Staunton and other ILIR members are planning to participate in the March for America, a march for immigration reform in Washington on March 21 to make another run at the President – the son of an immigrant – to fix the legal immigration system and give immigrants the opportunity to get legal and fully assimilate.

Alas, in a country where race still matters, the white faces, rosy cheeks, and lilting English of the Irish advocates can be powerful and occasionally disarming messengers for immigration reform.

In the effort to pass the Kennedy-McCain immigration bill in 2006, a contingent of ILIR advocates in white tee-shirts with “Legalize The Irish” emblazoned in big green letters across the front, confronted Senator Jim DeMint in his Capitol Hill office.  Daniela Gerson of the New York Sunrecounted the exchange:

The Irish immigrants lobbying to get visas appeared to take some congressmen by surprise yesterday. Senator DeMint, a Republican of South Carolina, returned to his office and found Samantha’s contingent of Irish parked in front.

Samantha [a bartender from Yonkers] told him “there’s no way for the Irish to get visas” and asked him to support the earned-legalization program in the Kennedy-McCain bill. Mr. DeMint appeared sold on the idea that the group of Irish “is a good example of the folks we’d like to have work here” but would not support a broad legalizing program. “America’s security has got to come first,” he said.

Senator Kennedy said that security and a legalization program were not exclusionary, particularly when it comes to the Irish.

So in a couple of weeks, when you hoist a beer on St. Patrick’s Day, remember our friends the Irish and their fight for immigration reform.

Just don’t tell Lou Dobbs.  Back when his CNN broadcast was the chief national megaphone of the anti- immigration reform movement, he made it clear he wasn’t a big fan of the lack of assimilation displayed by our Irish (and Italian) brothers and sisters:

DOBBS: But you know, one of the things that screams at me, every St. Patrick’s Day, every Columbus Day — and I’m going to get lots of e-mails and letters for saying this — but I see people celebrating a distant history and their lineage, presumably, that has nothing to do with celebrating America, and I find that astonishing. Frankly, I resent those kinds of holidays.

"Erin Go Bragh" indeed.

Douglas Rivlin is a consultant and blogger and the former Director of Communication for the National Immigration Forum.
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