The Wearing Down of the Green

The location was a cavernous conference room in a Washington hotel. The event was an Irish rally for liberal immigration

The location was a cavernous conference room in a Washington hotel. The event was an Irish rally for liberal immigration reform. And the procession of speakers who rolled up to the podium to give backing to the cause suggested that Irish-American political influence in the nation’s capital was as potent as ever.

Here was Senator Edward Kennedy, taking the stage as a two-man band struck up “The Boys of Wexford,” promising comprehensive immigration legislation that would offer “illegals” a path to citizenship.

“I didn’t come here to lose!” Mr. Kennedy boomed, sweat coursing down the side of his face.

Here was Senator Hillary Clinton, declaring that she was “waiting to fall in behind our leader, Senator Kennedy, and the rest of us who are in his army are going to send the message through Congress.”

And here was Senator Charles Schumer, delighting the crowd as he spurred them into an I.R.A.-associated chant of “Tiocfaidh Ar La”—“Our Day Will Come.”

The event, held one week ago under the auspices of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, seemed like a testament to the unique leverage on the body politic that Irish-Americans have traditionally enjoyed.

Saturday’s St. Patrick’s Day parades across the nation—the biggest, in New York City, is expected to attract two million marchers and onlookers—will doubtless also be proclaimed as affirmations of Irish America’s vitality.

Beyond the bombast, however, the picture looks very different. The immigration debate, far from demonstrating the enduring strength of Irish America, may in fact represent the Irish lobby’s last hurrah. Even some of Irish America’s most committed advocates already lament the erosion of their community’s power.

“It is declining,” said Niall O’Dowd, publisher of the New York–based Irish Voice newspaper and a founder of the ILIR. “Our heroes are not getting any younger. Ted Kennedy is 75. Where is the next generation of Irish community leaders?”

The core of the problem is that both strands of the so-called Irish lobby—the first comprised of Americans of Irish heritage, the second of recently arrived Irish immigrants—are beginning to fray.

Irish-Americans have, for years, become more integrated with—and indistinguishable from—mainstream American society. As their geographical ties to Irish communities have loosened, so too have their political allegiances.

“Is there really a sense of Irish-American-ness when it comes to voting?” Baruch College political-science professor Doug Muzzio asked rhetorically. “I would imagine that the only time a lot of those people consciously think of themselves as Irish is when they drink to excess” on St. Patrick’s Day.

“The old-style Irish-American politician is not quite a thing of the past,” New York political consultant George Arzt said. “But it’s not like the old days, when a balanced ticket meant someone Irish, someone Italian and someone Jewish.”

Meanwhile, economic boom times in Ireland—the much-vaunted “Celtic Tiger”—and more rigorous immigration enforcement by U.S. authorities since Sept. 11 have stanched the flow of new arrivals.

Though reliable statistics are by their nature difficult to come by, a visit to any of the old Irish redoubts in New York—Woodside, Sunnyside and Maspeth in Queens, or Woodlawn in the Bronx—provides plenty of evidence that their ethnic makeup is changing.

And the anecdotal evidence is stark. New York’s Gaelic Athletic Association, which has long functioned as a community network as much as a sporting organization, is seeing its teams disband and numbers shrink.

“I am absolutely certain that within five years, the G.A.A. to all intents and purposes will be dead in New York, which I think will be a dreadful situation,” Mr. O’Dowd said.

Yet another factor that has affected Irish America in recent years—one amounting to a silver lining containing a cloud—is the end of “the Troubles.” In times past, the armed conflict in the North of Ireland was a potent rallying point for activists, be they Irish nationals or Irish-Americans. Now that peace reigns, however uneasily, on the streets of Belfast, that issue has lost much of its potency.

All of these factors accrete into a straightforward loss of Irish-American political influence.

“It used to be that you’d be lucky if you could throw a stone in New York and not hit an Irish politician,” said Queens Congressman Joseph Crowley, who also spoke at the immigration rally in Washington. “There was Delaney, Murphy, Rooney, Moynihan. Now I am the only Irish-American Democratic Congressman from New York.”

The immigration issue has arguably gotten so much attention recently from Irish-Americans not just on the merits, but for an important tactical reason: It has served to draw together Irish activists of differing hues once more into one cohesive force.

It also self-evidently lends itself to grassroots involvement. Ciaran Staunton, the vice chairman of the immigration-reform group and a Manhattan bar owner, told the Washington meeting that the organization had grown to 28,000 members since its inception in late 2005. The rally was the culmination of a day that saw about 3,000 activists from around the country pound the corridors of Capitol Hill to make their case.

Acknowledging that Irish America can still punch “hugely” above its weight, and that “you just had to be there in that room to see that,” Mr. O’Dowd also noted that “this is probably the first grassroots Irish issue since the North was at its height that Irish-Americans are keenly interested in.”

Estimates of the total number of Irish illegal immigrants in the U.S. vary from 20,000 to over 50,000. Either way, they are a small proportion of the estimated 12 million “illegals” in the nation as a whole.

But, as Mr. Crowley noted, the Irish “bring a history of organizational strength and a sense of community” to the debate. In the process, they have created a template that other ethnicities seem to want to follow.

Mr. Staunton recalled a recent meeting between Irish immigration advocates and representatives of an unnamed Asian-American newspaper.

“They have a readership of 400,000,” he said with some awe. “They have thousands and thousands of undocumented people. And our advice to them was, ‘Get them onto the streets. You have to show that you’re out there.’ We’ve got all these people and they are empowered.”

An old joke holds that the first item on the agenda of any Irish political organization is the inevitable split. While the ILIR has maintained a united front so far, its stance has alienated Peter King, the Long Island Congressman once famous for his supportiveness toward Irish issues in general and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in particular.

And the alienation runs both ways: Mr. King’s adamant opposition to any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, Irish or otherwise, has led accusations of betrayal by his former allies.

“They have short memories,” Mr. King said. “I don’t think there was anybody at more political risk than I was as a result of engagement with Irish issues. I regularly visited with Sinn Fein; I hosted events for them long before it was fashionable. I would have thought that 25 years of work on Irish issues would count for something.”

Aside from disagreeing with the ILIR’s viewpoint, the Congressman expressed skepticism about the organization’s high-profile campaign. He contended that many people in the federal government did not even know that Irish “illegals” existed in any significant number until the lobbying effort began.

Such people were “under the radar,” Mr. King asserted, “until they started running around Capitol Hill in their green T-shirts.”

Though Mr. King insisted that Irish-Americans in his district were no less conservative on immigration than any other group, he also acknowledged that the work of the Irish lobby in general may improve the chances of Congress passing some form of liberalizing legislation.

“They are probably a plus, because it gets it away from the perception that this is just a Muslim and a Hispanic issue,” he said. “The Irish are considered mainstream by most Americans.”

Mr. King said, somewhat wistfully, that his former friends in what remains of the Irish lobby had become, functionally, just another narrowly focused interest group.

“This has become their issue now,” he said. “There is very little organizational effort on the North. All the effort is being put into immigration.”

The Wearing Down of the Green