Woodlawn, The Bronx — IMAGINE HILLARY Clinton holding up a T-shirt that read: “Legalize Mexicans.” That’s not going to happen, right?
Well, last month in Washington, at a rally hosted by the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, the leading Democratic candidate for president actually did have her picture taken holding a shirt that read: “Legalize the Irish.” That’s the lobby’s in-your-face slogan, which says a lot about the role that race (and ethnicity) plays in the debate about illegal immigration. Latino activists bend over backward trying to cloak undocumented Mexican migrants in the slogan “We are America,” but their Irish counterparts don’t feel similarly obliged.
There are an estimated 50,000 Irish illegal immigrants in the U.S.; 30,000 of them are thought to live in New York City. Today, this tiny corner in the northern reaches of the Bronx is perhaps the most heavily Irish-born neighborhood in New York, and advocates believe that as many as 40% of local immigrants are undocumented.
On Tuesday afternoon, I walked up Katonah Avenue, Woodlawn’s main shopping street, trying to guess who was or wasn’t here illegally. How about that blond woman walking with her child? Or perhaps the redhead in pink sweats? Surely the two rough-hewn construction workers enjoying a lunchtime beer at the Rambling House bar didn’t have papers. Like the woman I met in California’s Central Valley a few months ago who told me how odd it had been to see white people engaged in farm labor in Australia, it was a decidedly new sensation for me to suspect all the white people around me of being illegal.
“When I tell people I’m undocumented, it shocks them,” said Mary Brennan, a nurse’s aide who has lived in the U.S. for almost 17 years. “They think of JFK or Ronald Reagan, and they can’t understand how an Irish person could be illegal.”
Though Brennan shares the hardships of undocumented status with other illegal immigrants throughout the country — last year she was unable to attend her brother’s funeral in Ireland for fear that she’d be denied reentry to the U.S. — she acknowledges that Irish illegals do have a slight advantage. It’s all in the stereotypes — race-based, language-based, class-based.
Her friend, contractor Dermot Byrne, who also is here illegally, agrees. “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.”
Despite his status, Byrne has placed a pro-immigration-reform sticker on his car, as well as Irish versions of an “I love Jalisco” decal that identify his and his wife’s home counties in the old country.
Irish immigrant advocates are acutely aware that the American public doesn’t identify the Irish as alien, let alone illegal, and they consciously leverage this positive prejudice to their advantage.
“The fact that they’re white Europeans agitating for immigration reform is helpful,” said Niall O’Dowd, chairman of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform and publisher of the Irish Voice newspaper. “Bottom line is that every ethnic group brings their own strength to the debate. We can’t put a million people in the street, but we have positive political identification and a lot of access to Democrats and Republicans.”
There are 40 million Americans of Irish descent, and O’Dowd believes that a good portion of them, particularly the politicians, are sympathetic to the plight of illegal Irish immigrants. His office is filled with snapshots of him shoulder to shoulder with the likes of John McCain, Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy. “The key is to have sympathetic politicians of the same ethnic background,” he said.
Seeking to put a white Irish face on the issue of illegal immigration, O’Dowd and the Irish Lobby sent a delegation of 3,000 undocumented workers to Washington last month, not to protest but to lobby U.S. lawmakers. “We Irish are good at playing politics from the inside,” he said. “When politicians see that even the Irish can be undocumented, then they realize that there’s something wrong with the immigration system.”
But whites’ more favorable view of illegal immigrants who look like them may not translate to the growing number of Americans whose ancestors do not hail from Europe. The Pakistani-born cab driver who took me from the subway station to Katonah Avenue said he generally found Irish immigrants to be nice, as well as good tippers. “But they won’t rent you an apartment around here if you’re not Irish,” he said. “They don’t want to mix with other races.”