By Mary Donovan (Irish Voice)
More than 1,500 Irish Americans packed into the United Irish Cultural Center in San Francisco last Thursday at a mega rally in support of comprehensive immigration reform, with another 150 signing up for the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform’s March 7 rally in Washington, D.C.
The massive crowd heard a ringing endorsement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi via a message from her office which said she was looking forward to seeing ILIR members in the nation’s capital on March 7.
Pelosi’s immigration staffer Harriet Ishimoto said the speaker considered immigration reform a priority and that it could not succeed without ILIR’s efforts.
Ishimoto also told the crowd that Speaker Pelosi was making the resources of both her D.C. and San Francisco offices available to ILIR volunteers.
Last week’s rally was organized by the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform in conjunction with the Irish Pastoral Center (IPC) in San Francisco. IPC executive director Celine Kennelly said it was the biggest event the venue had hosted in decades.
The rally was opened by the Irish American Mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom, who pledged his support to the Irish. Rally organizers were thrilled that Newsom, embroiled in a political crisis over an extramarital affair, did not let them down on the night. He happily pulled on the “Legalize the Irish” T-shirt and posed for photographs with the crowd.
There was a huge media presence at the rally with representatives from the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Ireland’s national TV and radio networks, RTE and TG4.
The huge crowd began arriving at 7 p.m. for an 8 p.m. kick-off. One young couple, who had driven in from San Jose for the rally, said they were at their wits’ ends. Mary and Patrick, who are the parents of two young children, said they were running out of time. “We’ve been here for nine years now and we have two children who are both at school here. I can’t drive them to and from school anymore because I can’t renew my driving license,” Mary said.
Pointing to her husband, she added, “Pat’s built up a small plumbing business, he’s got four people working full time for him, pays all his taxes and everyone thinks we’re legal. I don’t know what we’re going to do if this doesn’t work.”
Mary and Pat have already booked their flights to D.C. and are bringing their children with them. “We have to take a stand on this,” said Pat. “At least we’ll be able to tell the kids we did our best to fight for them. It would break their hearts to leave their friends at school here. It’s all they’ve ever known.”
However, like everyone else in the crowd, they took great heart from what they heard. Speaker after speaker reiterated how important San Francisco was in the political campaign and urged everyone to let Speaker Pelosi, the congressional representative for the area, know the Irish wanted change.
Local council member Fiona Ma passed up an engagement in Sacramento to speak at the rally. She said it was vitally important that the San Francisco Irish continued to make their voices heard. “Believe me,” she said, “your calls are on not falling on deaf ears.”
Ma also announced that the normally fractious city council in San Francisco (Board of Supervisors) had joined with Newsom in passing a resolution in favor of comprehensive immigration reform and supporting the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform campaign.
San Francisco’s Irish Consul General Emer Deane made an impassioned appeal to the Irish to keep faith with the battle and reiterated the Irish government’s support for ILIR.
Bart Murphy, the chairman of the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers, slammed those who said the Irish were looking for a special deal, instead likening the Irish effort to Thomas the Tank Engine.
“Contrary to the comments of some naysayers, the Irish are not looking for a special deal in this campaign. We are leveraging our national experience of over 200 years of immigration for the benefit of all immigrant groups in the U.S. Like Thomas the Tank, we just happen to be the useful engine of this particular train,” Murphy said. This was a common refrain for the night as every speaker described the need for comprehensive immigration reform.
ILIR Vice Chairman Ciaran Staunton said, “We’re all in this together. We’re taking this battle to Congress on behalf of all immigrants. No matter where you came from — Guatemala or Gort in Mayo or Mexico, Tralee or Tegucigalpa — we’re all immigrants and we’re all in this together. When you attack one immigrant community, you attack us all.” Faced with a sea of t-shirts in the crowds, ILIR Executive Director Kelly Fincham said, “Every one of you wearing your Legalize the Irish t-shirt tonight represents every one of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country. Their battle is our battle.”
Describing the long shared history of Irish America, Angus McCarthy told the crowd how he had also been illegal in the 1980s and won his green card in a lottery. Now an immigrant rights commissioner in San Francisco, McCarthy said, “I was a beneficiary in the late 1980s and I am very grateful for the work that was done then. I’m here because I believe that we Irish don’t pull the ladder up behind us.”
Speaking after the rally, Kennelly confirmed that over 150 people were booked on red-eye flights for the 3,000-mile trek to D.C. on March 7. “This is what it’s all about — let’s get out there and make a difference,” she said.