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Raising the roof on ‘McCain’ Avenue

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Speaking from a stage in the St. Barnabas church auditorium, the Republican senator’s gaze took him over the heads of a large and enthusiastic Irish crowd and out the front door onto McLean Avenue.
Or was it, for a couple of rip-roaring hours, a thoroughfare called McCain?
It might as well have been because the rally organized by the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform was the biggest draw on the avenue at the end of another uncertain working week for the undocumented Irish of the Bronx, Yonkers and beyond.
And it was to the line straddling the New York borough and the Westchester city that McCain fought another verbal round in the fight for the kind of immigration law reform envisaged in the bill crafted by himself and an unlikely partner in Senator Edward Kennedy.
During his address to a crowd that, wisely, waved as many American flags as Irish tricolors, McCain referred to his normally Democratic opponent as “a lion in winter.”
All listening were hoping that McCain would be of a kind: a tiger in spring perhaps.
It was, for sure, a spring evening.
It had been balmy in the line of people waiting patiently outside the auditorium and warmer still in the hall that was rapidly filled to its corners by a crowd primed and ready for a champion to step forward at what is, for thousands of undocumented Irish, the closing minutes of the eleventh hour.
Last Friday evening, that champion was John Sidney McCain, a battle hardened veteran in more ways than one from another world called Arizona.
For an hour before McCain’s 6.30 arrival the crowd revved itself for what would be a roof-raising welcome for a man whose ancestors came to America from Ireland and Scotland in a time when the Bronx and Yonkers were not much more than names on maps drawn up by the Dutch.
But McLean Avenue is a border between retreat and advance these days, every bit as much as the frontier that snakes across the arid terrain of McCain’s home state.
Advance means simply staying here. Retreat means being gone from here.
Judging from the energy released by the St. Barnabas crowd, few among them, legal or otherwise, were planning on being easily gone.
And by no means all present were undocumented. The effort to secure legal footing in America for an estimated 40,000 Irish has drawn the legal and undocumented wings of the Irish community together a good deal more rapidly than was the case with the IIRM campaign fifteen years ago.
This is in large part because not a few of the legal Irish community won their visas because of a IIRM effort that started from scratch.
The ILIR campaign, by contrast, has the benefit of hindsight, recent experience and, not least, the internet.
And it shows.
The ability to instantaneously reach out to a capacity crowd while turning a room generally used for religious gatherings into what looked like a presidential campaign forum is a vital asset to any group hoping to sway the agitated mind of Congress.
McCain could not have been but impressed when he walked into a sea of smiling faces, ILIR t-shirts, placards and flags, not to mention a wall of sound that included, perhaps a little confusingly for the man, chants of “Ol

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