WILKES-BARRE – Vice President Joe Biden marked St. Patrick’s Day near the Pennsylvania city where he spent his childhood with a speech that touched on his Irish roots and included a pitch for immigration reform, telling a crowd of hundreds of Irish-American men that they shouldn’t “forget those people left behind, like we were before.”
Biden spoke Monday at the 100th anniversary banquet of the Greater Pittston Area Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, telling stories about his Irish mother and grandfather and ancestors who immigrated to America in the 1800s.
The vice president, who learned politics at his grandfather’s knee in an Irish-Catholic enclave of nearby Scranton, recalled the mid-1800s potato famine that killed a million people in Ireland and prompted mass immigration to the United States, saying it was partly a “man-made disaster” worsened by policies of the British government.
“The ruling class of London made a very conscious decision to ignore the plight of the people for fear of ‘creating dependency,”’ Biden said. “No help, because they feared they would create dependency in a peasant class.”
He said that Irish-Americans “are the most independent people on earth. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t get help from one another and didn’t get help when we came. It doesn’t mean we lack the heart and foresight to lend a hand when people are in need then, and now. And while it’s not the same, we should remember that there are 11 million people living in the shadows of this country. … We have an obligation to do something about it.”
Biden left Scranton for Delaware when he was 10, but he’s returned frequently to the city of his youth. Monday’s visit marked the sixth time he traveled to northeastern Pennsylvania as vice president.
Earlier, Biden met with workers helping people sign up for insurance under the federal health care law, praising them for their efforts and asking their opinions on what’s worked and what hasn’t as Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation approach a March 31 deadline.
Biden stopped at Terry’s Diner in Moosic and sat at a table with several enrollment workers pushing people to buy insurance.
“You’ve used your imagination to reach out in ways that haven’t occurred in a lot of other places,” Biden told them. “So what I wanted to talk to you about is how it’s going, what’s the hardest part, what’s the easiest part, what we should be doing that we’re not.”
Nationally, about 4.2 million people signed up for health insurance through March 1, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Biden has previously acknowledged that enrollments might fall significantly short of the Obama administration’s unofficial target of 7 million by the end of March.
In Pennsylvania, nearly 160,000 people had signed up for coverage through the federally run online insurance marketplace by March 1, and the state could reach the administration’s projections of 206,000 signups despite the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act website.
Open enrollment under the federal law ends on March 31, after which people without insurance are subject to federal tax penalties.
“In the last couple weeks we have a shot here at kind of rolling these numbers up a little more,” Biden said.
Biden was traveling to Poland later Monday, where President Barack Obama said he’d reassure Eastern European leaders of America’s commitment to them in the wake of Crimea’s vote to secede from Ukraine.