A group led by Irish New Yorkers, some from Long Island, jumped into the fray of the immigration reform debate Wednesday, lobbying in the nation's capital for Congress to fix what they say is a broken system.
The point that several dozen advocates sought to make as St. Patrick's Day nears: Lack of action is hurting Irish immigrants who are in the United States illegally and is keeping many from coming through proper channels.
"U.S. immigration today has a sign that says 'No Irish Need Apply,' and we want them to take down that sign," said Ciaran Staunton, president of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, based in Sunnyside, Queens.
Irish immigration to the United States, which spiked in the mid- to late-1800s, provided the labor that helped to build and grow cities including New York.
Their numbers ebbed and flowed later, but many struggled to make it through a complicated system that changed in 1965 to favor family reunification, locking out future waves of Europeans, advocates said.
Community groups estimated that about 55,000 Irish live in the United States illegally, as do millions of Caribbean, Asian and Latino immigrants waiting for a path to citizenship.
"If the immigration laws that were put in place since 1965 had been there forever, there would be no Irish in America. There would be no Kennedy; there would be no Reagan," said Maggie Boyle, a third-generation Irish-American and Massapequa resident. "It's not a partisan issue."
Irish advocates have joined other groups to keep pushing for change that would benefit all immigrant groups.
Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, director of the immigrant advocacy group Long Island Wins, said "there is a significant Irish undocumented population" that goes unnoticed and who "suffer terribly. . . from being in a situation where they are cut off from their family."
Javier Valdés, co-director of the Latino advocacy group Make The Road New York, said "we have been attached at the hip" with Irish advocates as all seek to show the issue affects a broad range of immigrants.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who is of Irish heritage, has emerged as an ally, even as he recently told advocates that reform is unlikely this year. King said Wednesday he "will continue to work with all interested parties. . .to find a path to real immigration reform and secure borders."
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which wants reduced immigration, agreed that the current system is unfair because it makes it harder for people from some countries to get U.S. visas.
He said the group favors merit-based visas over a comprehensive approach that would issue more visas while giving those already here legal status, saying the latter "essentially leaves the chain migration system intact and then adds on top of that."