In one of America’s most Irish cities, Boston’s undocumented Irish immigrants are advocating for Congress’ deliberation on a comprehensive immigration bill.
In July, the House Republicans rejected a comprehensive immigration reform bill that the United States Senate passed the month before, opting to address reform in a “step-by-step” approach. But Boston’s Irish immigrant advocates continues to push lawmakers for a bill that will grant a path to citizenship for the city’s estimated 10,000 undocumented Irish immigrants.
“We’ve sent busloads of Irish to Washington,” said Kieran O’Sullivan, immigration and citizenship advisor at Dorchester’s Irish Pastoral Center
O’Sullivan represents a growing voice in Boston’s Irish community that is advocating for immigration reform. Boston-based groups like the IPC and the Irish International Immigration Center are joining forces with other immigration advocacy groups under the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
The Irish may help to bridge the gap of the "us versus them" mentality towards Hispanic immigrants in the immigration debate, O'Sullivan said. Being white and native English speakers has removed some of the barriers to cultural assimilation that other immigrants might face, O'Sullivan said, which is why the Boston Irish’s effort to push for a path to citizenship is telling evidence of the national momentum for immigration reform.
Boston remains among the highest Irish-concentrated cities in the nation. An estimated 16 percent of Bostonians claim Irish ancestry, compared to 11.1 nationwide, according to the American Community Service Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. In the Greater Boston area, the neighborhoods with the highest density of Irish-Americans include Dorchester (13.74 percent), Somerville (12.86 percent), Allston (11.11 percent), Cambridge (9.98 percent), and South Boston (7.6 percent).
In the 1980s and '90s, Congress passed a series of visa programs that eased the path to citizenship for Irish immigrants. Many of those Irish immigrants arrived in Boston on a student, visitor, or temporary work visa and found a community of immigrants, according to O’Sullivan. Many found work as a nannies, wait staff, bartenders, or laborers and overstayed their visas.
Those immigrants who overstayed their visas risk deportation if they leave the United States and try to gain re-entry.
“If the day comes that I get to go back, I’ll probably be visiting a lot of graveyards,” said one undocumented Dorchester resident.
Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform chairman Hugh Meehan said there are an estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants living in the U.S.
“Immigrants are not going anywhere - what we need to do is document the people that are here,” Meehan said.
Meehan said he and his delegation have gained the support of more conservative lawmakers in the past.
After lobbying Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, he proposed legislation that would grant 10,500 special work visas for Irish immigrants, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan voiced his support for reform when he met with ILIR representatives this past March, and even conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly, recalling his Irish heritage, came out last month in his support for a path to citizenship for the undocumented.
Irish American politicians tend to feel a close connection to Ireland, Irish International Immigrant Center executive director Ronnie Millar said.
“When all of these politicians, like Joe Biden or Representative Richard Neal, hear this rally call - especially from Irish organizations- it really resonates. We may not have numbers, but I think it’s important that the Irish continue our influence.”
Millar added, “This is an opportunity for immigrants of all backgrounds. Now, we say that with an Irish accent, but we say it loud and clearly.”