Latinos are indisputably the most visible faces of the current immigration debate; after all, the vast majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. were born in Mexico. But one community coming out of the shadows to fight for immigration reform highlights the diversity of the undocumented rights movement.
Niall O’Dowd of the Irish Lobby For Immigration Reform (ILIR) highlighted Thursday a community of 10,000 undocumented Irish immigrants in Boston who are growing desperate as they await Congressional action on immigration reform.
Irish immigrants described to O’Dowd their own version of life in the shadows. Undocumented drivers pick routes that take them through neighborhoods policed by Irish American cops, in hopes of lenient treatment if they are discovered without a license. A Dorchester pastor who emigrated form Ireland told O’Dowd, “We have so many people just hanging on, desperate really. I know it is the same in other communities, but the Irish undocumented need this bill desperately.”
Vice President Joe Biden took the opportunity to tout immigration reform when he was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame in March, pointing out that Irish immigrants faced the same kind of xenophobia Latinos are grappling with now. Millions of Irish immigrants flooded the U.S. in the 19th century to escape the Potato Famine and British oppression. Much like Latino immigrants prop up the economy now, Irish workers were instrumental particularly in the textile industry. Since then, the population of undocumented Irish immigrants has dwindled to around 50,000, mainly concentrated in the traditional Irish strongholds of Boston and New York City.
Because Irish immigrants already speak English, they tend to have better economic prospects than their undocumented Latino and Asian peers, though remain in low-skill jobs. Many immigrants have pointed out that racial stereotypes also shield them from the same kind of marginalization and suspicion experienced by non-white immigrants. In a Los Angeles Times profile of undocumented Irish, one undocumented contractor explained, “From my experience, we’re not singled out. If someone’s driving down the street and they see five Mexican guys on one side and five Irish guys on the other, they’re going to think that the Mexicans are illegal, even though it could be the other way around.”
O’Dowd himself has encouraged Irish immigration advocates to openly exploit the bias: “The fact that they’re white Europeans agitating for immigration reform is helpful,” he told the LA Times bluntly. O’Dowd recently argued that Irish immigrants can use their clout with Republican lawmakers from similar conservative Irish Catholic backgrounds. Since the last wave of undocumented immigration from Ireland in the 1980s, the Irish American community has lobbied fiercely for immigration reform. The ILIR held a fundraiser earlier this year, organized Irish Americans in almost every state, and has actively cultivated relationships with lawmakers. The group has even been invited to the White House, as well as every major briefing on the Senate’s immigration bill. As House Republicans are now signalling they will not accept the Senate’s bill, key Irish American lawmakers, notably Rep. Paul Ryan, (R-WI) are quietly pushing for immigration reform.