Irish immigrants rally against proposed law

  • Medill News Service
  • January 31, 2006 @ 7:00 AM
For the first time in 25 years Chicago's Irish community is mobilizing against proposed federal legislation. In this case, they are opposing a measure which would require immigrants to produce a green card or face prison. it would also make it a felony to help undocumented immigrants.

Meetings last week at Gaelic Park in Oak Forest and the Irish-American Heritage center on the Northwest side were held to discuss features of the controversial bill pending in Congress. Those attending will be asked to put pressure on Illinois Democratic senators Barack Obama and Dick Durbin to defeat the measure.

"It would mean that the [undocumented] Irish waitress serving in the bar is a criminal and anyone who harbors or helps her is a criminal," said Breandan Magee spokesman for Chicago Irish Immigrant Support (CIIS).

There are approximately 1 million persons of Irish heritage in the Chicago area, according to John Gerald McLaughlin author of "Irish Chicago." Of these, CIIS estimates up to 5,000 persons may be undocumented. A spokeswoman for the Irish consulate in Chicago said it estimates there are currently 25,000 illegal Irish immigrants across the United States.

Under the proposed Sensenbrenner immigration reform bill, if an immigrant can't produce his or her green card when asked by a police officer, he or she could be charged with a felony punishable by at least a year in prison.

Edwin Yohnka, a spokesman for the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union said it is concerned the Sensenbrenner legislation will switch the whole dynamic of immigration law. He questioned the criminalization of such actions as allowing immigrants and even people born in the country to be stopped repeatedly and asked for their immigration status.

"We are concerned over legislation that is a radical departure from the way we have handled immigration in the past," Yohnka said .

An undocumented immigrant from Chicago's Northwest suburbs, who asked to remain anonymous, said he is anxious about the new reforms. The 26-year-old owns his own home and a bricklaying company, which employs six people. If he was asked to produce his green card, he would loose everything.

Despite the proposed reforms, he said he would continue to take the "chance" of being arrested in order to keep living his life here. "It would make my life a lot harder," he said. "it's a risk if you are pulled in for a speeding ticket."

The Irish immigrant meetings this week are not only aimed at encouraging attendees to contact legislative representatives but to learn more about the proposed new laws.

"[The meetings are] rallies in support of immigration reform," said Fred Psao, policy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "The hope is that they will take up the cause of immigration reform," he said.

"It is certainly our hope that if large numbers and a diversity of voices turn out [to the meetings] in support of strong positive immigration legislation it will have an impact," he said.

CIIS leaders hope that a lobby group, similar to the Irish Lobby For Immigration Reform in New York, could emerge out of the meetings later this week, according to the Rev. Michael Leonard, director of CIIS.

Irish immigrant Maureen O'Looney, a North West suburban resident, said that she hopes that other citizens like her will come out to the meetings to give a voice to the Irish illegal immigrants living in America.

"The Irish undocumented are frightened to come out?they have no voice, no vote, they have nothing," O'Looney said.

Magee said if the bill passes, he fears there will be a stop in the flow of immigration, which would break the strong ties between Ireland and America.

While CIIS members view the Sensenbrenner reform bill as a step backwards they are supportive of the Kennedy-McCain immigration reform proposal, which would give the current undocumented immigrants with clean criminal records a temporary six-year visa.