Biden rallies Irish Americans to Hispanic immigrants’ cause

US vice-president’s folksy speech to Irish audience had a political purpose

US president Barack Obama and vice-president Joe Biden shake hands on arriving at a reception for Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the White House this week. Photograph: Mike Theiler/via Bloomberg

US president Barack Obama and vice-president Joe Biden shake hands on arriving at a reception for Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the White House this week. Photograph: Mike Theiler/via Bloomberg

 

President Barack Obama remarked at the festivities during Enda Kenny ’s visit to Washington DC this week that only a new pope could keep his Catholic and Irish American vice-president Joe Biden away from an Irish party in the White House.

Biden was back from Rome in time, however, to host a breakfast for Kenny on Wednesday morning. The vice-president got another opportunity to savour the St Patrick’s week atmosphere at a special lunch in New York on Thursday to mark the induction of six prominent Americans into the Irish America magazine’s Hall of Fame.

Biden himself was one of the inductees this year along with former ambassador Jean Kennedy-Smith, former congressman Bruce Morrison and the hotelier and newly elected chair of the American Ireland Fund, John Fitzpatrick.

The vice-president was also the keynote speaker at Thursday’s lunch and he used the event well, not only to reconnect with his Irish-American base but also to say something significant about how Irish America should play a key role in supporting the Obama administration’s proposals for immigration reform. Irish America should do so, he said, not just because of the 50,000 undocumented Irish in the United States but because the Irish emigration story should inform Irish American understanding of the plight of the 11 million illegal Hispanics and Asians now stuck in immigration limbo in the US.

Biden, who was born in the Irish American heartland of Scranton, Pennsylvania, has strong Irish roots. In a piece for the most recent edition of Irish America magazine the genealogist Megan Smolenyak put the vice-president as roughly five-eights Irish. His mother’s entire family tree traces to Ireland with the other eighth coming from his father’s side.

His most prominent links are with the Cooley Peninsula in Co Louth from where his mother’s grandfather Owen Finnegan came. A blind musician who arrived in New York on his own on May 31st, 1849, he began making a new life for himself as a shoemaker and brought his family over a year later.

Irish heritage
Biden spoke of the impact his extensive Irish heritage had on his upbringing. His grandaunt Greta inculcated a boyish anger and terror in him for the atrocities committed by the Black-and-Tans, although she never set foot in Ireland.

Biden also told the audience how he credits his Irish heritage for the strong sense of self-confidence and fairness his mother schooled into him. “Show respect to every one,” she told him, “but demand respect from all.” He said she repeatedly said: “Everyone is your equal but no-one is your better.” When as a young senator he got the opportunity to meet the queen in London his mother warned him to be polite but not to bow or kiss the queen’s ring. He thought this arose from anti-monarchist sentiment on his mother’s part until years later when, as vice-president, he got to introduce her to Pope John Paul II and she again warned him not to bow or kiss the ring of anyone.

Biden’s folksy tales to his Irish-American audience in New York were entertaining but it became clear they had a purpose. As is customary now on such occasions he spoke of how the Obama administration recognises the need to address the plight of the 50,000 undocumented Irish in the US.

Biden went on, however, to set the plight of the undocumented Irish in the context of the 11 million people, most of them Hispanic and some Asian, living illegally in the US for whom he said a pathway to US citizenship has to be found. He floated the notion of a transformation in the legal framework which would allow the undocumented to come out of the shadows, register their existence, and join the queue along with external applicants for full citizenship.

Illegal status
Speaking of how the idea of a pathway out of illegal status for these 11 million people has met with great resistance, Biden reminded his audience of the prejudice faced by the Irish when they first began to arrive in the US in large numbers. The Ku Klux Klan, he pointed out, was “about more than blacks”; it was also an organised movement against further Catholic immigration.

He told of how otherwise respectable politicians and newspaper editors of the time had warned that these Catholic immigrants with all their children and their religion would swamp the established American way of life. For decades Biden said the Irish had seen their religion denigrated and their lifestyle caricatured in catch cries: “they breed like rabbits ”, “they drink all the time”.

“Hispanics” Biden told his fellow Irish Americans “are just as proud and noble as our forefathers and mothers were”. They too wanted to make a contribution to building a stronger America. He pointed out that 17 per cent of those at universities in the US today are Hispanic and they account for 11 per of the US armed forces.

Irish Americans, Biden said, should know “a whole lot better than most” why the US needs to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Irish America, he added, had the capacity and obligation to give not only their own undocumented but the rest of the 11 million illegal immigrants the real prospect of a full life in the US.

To this observer at least, it seemed Biden was trying to leverage Irish-American opinion, which might otherwise be expected to resist legal status for so many Hispanic and Asian immigrants, to actively support Obama’s reform proposals. It also serves Biden’s own political purposes perhaps. If he should run for president in 2016, this pose as a champion of immigration reform will do him no harm with the now decisive Hispanic vote.

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