A chairde, Fáilte go mBáile Ath Clíath
Friends welcome to Dublin
I am absolutely delighted to be here with you today for the first Transatlantic Migrant Democracy Camp to be held in Dublin, Ireland. It is also great to see so many familiar faces, and good friends here from Chicago, my adopted home town.
Like many of you here today, I left my own homeland and began an immigrant journey of my own back in 1998 when I left Ireland to start a new life with my family in America. I understand the challenges of starting over in a strange country and the tough situations that immigrants find themselves in, but I’m here today to talk to you about your inherent power and the call for leadership, in your own communities here in Ireland and abroad.
Before being appointed an Irish Senator for the Global Irish, I was on your side of the podium, simply an immigrant stepping up to represent my own community.
I opened an Irish themed pub in Wrigleyville Chicago some 20 years ago where I encountered firsthand the Irish undocumented who call America home. In the weather beaten faces of carpenters from Donegal, and contractors from Mayo, I witnessed the pain caused by a broken US immigration system that divided families and hurt businesses. Today there are up to 50,000 Irish undocumented living in the shadows of the US economy, out of a total of 11 million people without papers. They come from nearly every continent, and while their faces may differ their stories do not. They came to the US seeking a better life. They work hard, pay their taxes and contribute to the US economy.
As a business owner with a voice and as an Irish immigrant myself I couldn’t just stand by and do nothing. I would like to share with you several lessons I have learned:
Lesson 1 is: Step Up, and Organize Your Own: In Chicago we began by organizing Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform. If your own community is not organized, and you do not speak for them, then no one will or should recognize and respect you. The Irish immigrants connected with the large community of Irish Americans, from the generations that came before us. So when we began we had both Irish constituents and Irish American Allies.
The Irish have a long and storied history with emigration from our own shores, and we have a particular appreciation of the struggles faced by newcomers in a strange land. Over 34 million Americans today claim Irish ancestry, many of them descendent from the more than 1 million desperate men and women who fled famine-ravished Ireland during the Great Famine. When they arrived in America, the Irish faced a cold welcome – not unlike that received by today’s desperate immigrants and refugees, fleeing war and famine across the world.
Ireland itself has witnessed immense changes in the last 20 years as we transformed our economy and opened our doors to migrants from across Europe and beyond.
But Lesson 2 is: You Cannot Do It Alone: The Irish immigrant community in Chicago is small, and the undocumented are the most powerless. We joined the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and joined together with Mexican, Asian, Muslim, Palestinian, African, Catholic, Jewish, and European immigrant leaders and communities. There was a team of leaders, each respected in their own communities, who worked together as a team.
Through the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights we led the charge back in 2005 with the first of the mega marches that brought millions onto the streets in cities coast to coast, to fight the anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner Bill. We also worked to secure welcoming ordinances at the City and county levels to protect immigrants from deportation. In recent times, as threats grew graver from Washington, Illinois staunchly stood by its immigrant and refugee neighbours. My immigrant friends also recently passed the Illinois Trust Act, the most robust of its kind in America, which disentangles local law enforcement from the federal deportation machine.
Lesson 3 is: In A Democracy, You Speak For Yourself:
Immigrant communities lead by immigrant leaders are the key to success in any campaign for immigrant rights, and that recipe was no different in Chicago where we had many wins for our communities.
All of this was made possible by the courage, tenacity and dogged organizing of immigrant and refugee communities across the state, who came together for a common purpose. They marched, they held actions, they educated legislators, they communicated their message effectively through traditional and social media and they affected real change by directing the narrative and changing the hearts and minds, not just of the public, but of the politicians who cast votes on issues that matter most to them.
To do that they needed organizers and leaders like you to show real fortitude by stepping forward to tell their stories. The undocumented youth in particular who fought for the federal DACA program and the Illinois DREAM Act university scholarship program were formidable. You too have that same power, as immigrants in your own right and leaders in your respective communities here in Ireland and beyond, to change policies and affect laws that matter most to you
Lesson 4 is: Build relationships, with your allies and your adversaries: Politics is a funny business. Sometimes your friends stab you in the back, and sometimes your enemies will stand with you. At the Illinois Coalition for Immigrants and Refugees, we intentionally build relationships with our adversaries, and we also held our allies accountable. We were in constant, continuous face to face dialogue.
We never won a single victory without going to those Republicans with whom we could dialogue, and standing up to be counted. We specifically looked for immigrant and refugee leaders who lived in their electoral districts, or who came from their religious or ethnic communities. We persisted over the years, always pursuing the political openings.
Lesson 5 is: Reward your friends, and punish your enemies: There were many times when the Democrats took us for granted and voted against us for political convenience. There were many times when it was convenient for Republicans and even Democrats to attack and demonize us. And we challenged them, and sometimes punished them politically.
At ICIRR we have been engaged in every election cycle, registering and mobilizing the immigrant vote. Sometimes we caused Democrats who did not support us to lose – Sometimes we caused Republicans who attacked us to lose. At the end of the day, politics is about power. We wish to be loved, but at the end of the day, respect is more important.
Lesson 6 is: Stand for the Core Values of Equality and Freedom: In the U.S. the symbol is the Statue of Liberty, the invitation to the poor and downtrodden to our shores. The core values of European Democracy are equal rights and freedom.
We are in a very difficult period in the U.S. and in Europe. The forces of hate are demonizing immigrants. I tell my Irish American friends who support President Trump: “You have short memories. The Irish were the original refugees. We came to the U.S. fleeing religious discrimination, an occupied nation, and dying by the millions from starvation.”
When immigrants and refugees stand up and say: “We believe in Democracy. We believe in free speech. We believe in religious freedom. We believe in equal rights,” that is a powerful thing. That means we believe that black refugees should be treated like white Americans and white Europeans. That means we believe that gay Muslims should be treated like white straight Christians. That means we speak out in support of undocumented Irish and Mexicans, asylum seeking Africans and Syrians. Immigrants and refugees can be, and should be the strongest supporters of the core values of equality and democracy for all.
In Illinois our organization was asked to support marriage for gays. Because we believe in equality for all, we voted unanimously to support it. The Catholics and Muslims on the Board – all very devout leaders in their faiths – said: “Our faith does not support this, but we will not deny it for others. We stand together for vulnerable undocumented, and so we stand together for vulnerable gays.”
In these ugly times of hate and intimidation, courageous migrants and refugees can be the BEST spokespersons for equality, freedom, and respectful pluralism.
Lesson 7 is: Sometimes you get rewarded for doing the right thing: We do this Democratic Organizing not be doing it for one year or three years, but over 20 years. What I have described to you took place over 15 years. We do not do it because we want to be rich or successful or recognized, but because it is the right thing to do.
But I now I am 68 years old, and I have seen that immigrant and refugee leaders who do this over time win respect. The African president of ICIRR is now the foreign minister for Sierra Leone. The Syrian doctor was named Chicagoan of the Year for his humanitarian work in Syria and for refugees around the world. The Mexican non-profit leader is now the Chancellor of the City Colleges. The undocumented Mexican student now has her Phd. And I was appointed to the Seanad, the Irish Senate, to represent Irish immigrants around the world.
As legislators in the Dáil and Seanad, we are responsible to the people and our living constitution, the architects of which admonished us “to cherish all of the children of the nation equally.” The revolutionaries of 1916 did not distinguish between newcomer and native, but rather envisioned an inclusive Ireland that welcomed all of its inhabitants and asked them to contribute their talents to the life of the Republic. Those of you living here are uniquely situated in history to be a part of the new Ireland, that is transforming itself and re-imagining what it means to be Irish in the modern era.
Grasp that opportunity and make your voices heard.
My appointment to the Seanad to represent the Irish living overseas, is a testament to the Irish government’s commitment to engage with the Irish diaspora but you also have the opportunity to focus its attention closer to home. As you enjoy this inaugural Democracy Camp be sure to learn from each other, develop leaders in your own communities and value your relationships. Cultivate them and be strategic in developing them.
I will finish with some wise words that could have been attributed to an organizer but surprisingly came from President Ronald Regan himself “If you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat”.
Go ráibh mhaith agaibh.
Thank you very much.