Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer received a reception worthy of a rock star as he took to the microphone in front of a crowd of hundreds of Irish supporters, many of whom were undocumented, to address the issue of immigration reform in the U.S. Senate.
In a night that included speeches from Republican Party member and high-profile lawyer Grant Lally and former Bill Clinton advisor John Dearie, the Brooklyn-born senator stole the show, vowing to do everything in his power as a member of the judiciary committee to ensure the passing of the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill.
Schumer was pivotal in bringing in diversity visas, which came to be named after him and are currently the only legal path to green cards for Irish people without family connections wishing to emigrate to the United States.
The busy Brooklyn senator was moved to attend the meeting after ILIR lobbyists flooded his office with telephone calls, faxes and emails in the wake of recent meetings in Yonkers, Boston and Philadelphia, requesting his presence in Queens.
“I had promised my wife I would take her out for dinner at 7.30 p.m., but I guess I’m going to be late,” Schumer said as the crowd rose to their feet, clapping and cheering wildly.
“The Schumer visas were written for the Irish,” he continued. “Not because I was raised in an Irish neighborhood, not because so many Irish people knocked on doors for me when I ran for Senate. Not because my chief of staff, Martin Brennan, is Irish or because I gave my sister into an Irish family. The reason is because I love America, and I truly believe that the more Irish there are in the U.S., the better it is.”
Schumer condemned the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, which was sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner and passed by the House of Representatives. Amongst its provisions, the Sensenbrenner bill makes undocumented workers subject to imprisonment as well as deportation.
“That bill is the biggest door closer of them all,” Schumer said. “I will do everything I can to make sure the bill has a dagger passed through its heart.”
Meanwhile, the message from the ILIR Executive Director Kelly Fincham was more practical.
“Get on that bus, go to Washington, make your voices heard,” she said, urging members of the audience to join up for the ILIR’s planned lobby day in Washington on March 8. Reminding the audience that March is likely to be a critical month for the McCain-Kennedy bill, she asked: “Do you want your future to be decided behind closed doors, or do you want to have your say?”
Lally, who has dedicated much of his time in recent weeks to ILIR activities, also had some practical advice.
“If you go, you will meet senators, you will meet members of Congress, you will make a difference,” he said.
“In the meantime, call your local senators, these calls are logged, they are heard, they do make a difference.”
The real heroes of the night, however, were not accomplished public speakers, but two brave women who have been living in the shadows for years as undocumented Irish immigrants.
ILIR Queens organizing committee members Samantha and Mary shared their stories with the audience in an attempt to convince people of the importance of traveling to Washington next month.
“I came here and I overstayed my visa because I love this country,” said Samantha, who has been living as an undocumented immigrant in New York for six years.
“I’m taking the day off work to go. We took the day off work to come here, we can take a day off work to try and stay here. There’s no need for us to be ashamed or afraid or depressed anymore. We’re going to Washington and we’re going to get our green cards.”
Speaking to the Echo after the meeting, Samantha said how delighted the group was at Schumer’s attendance.
“Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton is next on our list,” she said.
Mary, a native of Kerry, has been living in New York for 15 years and faces a 10-year ban if she returns.
“Every year passes and I pray for my name to be pulled out of that hat,” she said.
“I want to travel, I’m a registered nurse, but I cannot fulfill my dream of working as a nurse. We need the McCain-Kennedy Bill to be passed to give us a future and to make sure that our kids and grandchildren don’t go through what we had to go through.”
After the meeting, a positive mood prevailed amongst the crowd.
“I’ve been here 12 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,”
one young woman commented as she signed up for the bus trip.
For more information about the ILIR lobby day, log on to www.irishlobbyusa.org, or call: 718 598 7530.