Nearly a thousand people listened to veteran activists hearken back to the successful struggles of the Irish Immigration Reform Movement in the late 1980s and the issuance of the Donnelly and Morrison Visas, which paved the way for permanent legal status for thousands of Irish men and women.
Acknowledging that coming out of the shadows these days may be more daunting than it was 20 years ago because of the anti-illegal immigration fervor that has swept the country since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, ILIR vice-chairman Ciaran Staunton told a receptive audience that keeping a low profile is not an option.
“The only creatures I know of that continually go around with their heads down are sheep, and they end up in the slaughterhouse,” he said to laughter and a rousing ovation.
Staunton and ILIR chairman Niall O’Dowd exhorted the crowd to sign up and leave the hall as political activists, with an eye on the all-important lobbying day in Washington, D.C., on March 8.
“This isn’t a Republican, Democrat, liberal or conservative issue. Conservatives actually support our position, and Republicans actually support our position … You’ve been on the back burner long enough … We’re getting on buses, we’re going to Washington, and we’re going to plead our case,” Staunton said.
Kelly Fincham, executive director of the ILIR, told the crowd of old-timers and fledgling activists that immigration reform runs in cycles, requiring periodic infusions of experience and youthful enthusiasm.
“It seems like every 20 years the Irish have to battle for legal acceptance in the U.S. This is the year to win the battle once and for all,” she said.
Referring to the 1965 immigration reform act which largely restricted Irish immigration to those seeking family reunification, Fincham told the audience that it would be a mistake for Irish immigrants to sit idly by while power brokers in Washington and Dublin formulate new immigration laws. “This is not the time to stay quiet … We can’t afford to be left behind again.”
At the end of the meeting, representatives of the GAA, AOH, Irish Cultural Center, and Irish Immigration Center gathered together to share ideas about mobilizing and offering support.
Thomas Keown, spokesman for the IIC, said after the rally that there are about 10,000 undocumented Irish immigrants in the Boston area, the vast majority of whom have overstayed tourist or work visas. The ILIR puts the national number for Irish people living in illegal status at about 40,000.
Sr. Lena Deevy, executive director of the IIC, said that the energy and enthusiasm in Florian Hall Thursday night reminded her of the early days of the IIRM.
“Back then, people working together brought about the kind of reform that many said was impossible,” she said. “The presence of the GAA, AOH and other groups at the rally delivered a powerful message to the immigrants of today that they have reason to be hopeful.”