Washington DC: Democratic Irish American congressional leaders expressed strong support for an immigration overhaul that would put the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship.
They made their comments during a press briefing Wednesday afternoon outside Capitol Hill in Washington DC.
With the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” rumored to be within days of releasing their proposal to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, the six politicians highlighted the historical contribution of Irish immigrants to the U.S.
“Immigration reform does not just affect one nationality, it affects all of us,” Rep. Joe Crowley, Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus said during the briefing on Wednesday afternoon outside the Capitol.
“Right now there are immigrants from all over the world here in this country, hoping for the opportunity to come out of the shadows and live and work without fear.”
“Many of those individuals are of Irish descent.”
The Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform estimates there are around 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants currently living in the U.S.
In a call to action, Rep. Crowley expressed confidence that the country's “broken” immigration system, a crucial focus of President Barack Obama's second term, would soon be fixed.
“As Irish American representatives, we are proud to join the many advocates who have made clear that the time is now for immigration reform,” he said.
Chair of the Friends of Ireland, Rep. Richard Neal, said there has been a lack of focus on the undocumented Irish within the immigration debate.
“While this issue frequently focuses on the southwest of America, the truth is there's another whole dimension in cities like Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Chicago and New York,” Neal said.
“Think of those families who can never return to Ireland when a loved one dies, who can never go back for a graduation. The trouble is they might not get back into America.”
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York said many people underestimate the contribution of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
“They serve in our military, they die for this country and that’s almost every nationality,” McCarthy said.
“One thing that everyone seems to forget - we were all immigrants at one time. It’s time for us to join together.”
The group of Democratic congressional leaders also included Bill Keating (Mass.), Joseph Kennedy III (Mass.) and Tim Ryan (Ohio). Former Congressman and Irish immigration advocate Bruce Morrison was also present.
The press briefing took place amidst the backdrop of an immigration reform rally on Capitol Hill.
In his concluding remarks, Rep. Neal told the gathered crowd: “There is a famous Irish phrase –‘clear the way’.”
“Clear the way to give the opportunity to those who want that great title ‘citizen of the United States of America’.”
RALLY FOR CITIZENSHIP
Later that afternoon, thousands of advocates converged on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol to rally for immigration reform for the culmination of the ‘National Week of Action for Citizenship’.
Amid temperatures as high as 90F, the American flag-toting crowd chanted in English and Spanish hoping lawmakers inside would heed their call.
Numerous immigration activists addressed the crowd, each calling for reform that incorporates citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S.
Flying a large Irish tricolor during the rally was Dubliner Lisa O'Reilly. O'Reilly, who immigrated to the US in 2001, made the trip from Baltimore with a group of ten friends to show her solidarity with fellow immigrants.
“I came [to the U.S.] with papers,” she told IrishCentral. “I have the privilege of having papers, so I have to speak on behalf of people who don’t. I have to speak on behalf of people who are afraid.”
O’Reilly works as a pastoral associate in a Catholic parish in Baltimore. She doesn’t expect the undocumented Irish immigrants to get favorable treatment in any reform overhaul.
“It troubles me that the Irish would feel that because of our history and our special relationship that we will have a leg up.” O’Reilly said.
Instead, O’Reilly believes having a strong history and relationship with the U.S. gives Irish immigrants extra responsibility.
“That special relationship should mean that we have the responsibility in the corridors of power to work on behalf of others that don’t have that position,” she said.
American citizens Andrew Goulet and Ryan Quinn were among a group of union ironworkers who made the trip from Western Massachusetts early Wednesday morning to join the rally.
“We had a bus of 40 people come down from Western Mass,” Goulet told IrishCentral. “We left at 5am.”
The 28-year-old said workers’ rights is just one of the reasons he supports immigration reform.
“Denying undocumented workers in this country their full rights creates an incentive for employers to hire undocumented workers and treat them however they want,” Goulet said.
“We are asking for a lot of broad sweeping changes and I don’t expect it to happen all at once.”
“But when there is support like this,” Goulet says, gesturing to the crowd. “It makes you think it’s just a matter of time.”