The president’s views on immigration have been stated in the past but never in such detail as was the case Monday evening when he addressed the nation from the Oval Office.
Crucially, the president indicated his backing for the kind of reform that would include passage to legal residence and citizenship for the illegal and undocumented.
Bush’s speech, which attracted a viewing public that likely included thousands of undocumented Irish, was quickly welcomed by Irish foreign minister Dermot Ahern.
“I warmly welcome President Bush’s significant remarks last night in support of immigration reform. In particular, I welcome his view that most of those who are currently undocumented should be able to apply for citizenship once qualifying conditions are met,” Ahern said in a statement.
“I recognize fully the complexity and sensitivity of this issue and I deeply appreciate the president’s call for concerted efforts to work towards a rational middle ground,” the minister said.
Ahern also announced additional Irish government support for the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform which has been waging a five-month campaign to secure the kind of law changes carried in the McCain/Kennedy reform bill and its companion, the Hagel/Martinez compromise bill.
The president’s speech, described to the Echo as “very positive” by one longtime observer of immigration issues in Washington, comes at a critical moment in a debate that many legislators want to see concluded by the end of the 109th Congress, but which some observers believe could pass over into the 110th or even into the 2008 presidential election race.
“I welcome the president’s support and eagerly await details of his plan,” New York congressman Joe Crowley said in a statement reacting to the Bush speech.
“But I also recognize the reality of the climate in Congress where the issue of immigration is being used for political ends,” said Crowley, a co-chair of the congressional Ad Hoc Committee for Irish Affairs.
It was just such allegations of political gamesmanship that brought the Senate reform effort to a shuddering halt a few weeks ago.
However, observers feel that the prospects for an agreed Senate bill have significantly improved since then while Senate leaders have additionally indicated in recent days that there is now the basis for a deal.
Expectations of a Senate vote in favor of comprehensive reform were given an early boost Tuesday with the defeat of an amendment put down by Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia.
The Isakson proposal would have required the U.S. government to certify that border security provisions were fully operational before any undocumented or illegal immigrant could obtain a change of status.
The amendment was defeated 55-40 and a compromise amendment that would not delay any legalization process was then passed by 79-16.
“This suggests that when it comes to the key votes there is a solid majority in favor of Hagel/Martinez,” said one well-placed source.
Still, even with such early favorable signs, any bill that emerges from the Senate would then have to face the already approved House bill, H.R. 4437, authored by Reps. James Sensenbrenner and Peter King
This measure focuses entirely on border security and does not address the calls for a legalization plan for as many as 12 million illegal and undocumented people, an estimated 40,000 undocumented Irish among them.
Backers of H.R. 4437 will not be easily moved should any Senate bill pass and be offered for their consideration in a House/Senate conference phase that some reports indicate could drag on for months.
The president’s speech, meanwhile, was front-loaded with border security proposals, not least the sending of National Guard Troops to patrol the frontier with Mexico.
But saying that he supported “comprehensive immigration reform,” Bush went on to propose a temporary worker program “that would create a legal path for foreign workers to enter our country in an orderly way, for a limited period of time.”
Critically, he then addressed the presence of the millions of illegal and undocumented already in the U.S.
“They should not be given an automatic path to citizenship. This is amnesty, and I oppose it. Amnesty would be unfair to those who are here lawfully, and it would invite further waves of illegal immigration,” Bush stated.
And he continued: “Some in this country argue that the solution is to deport every illegal immigrant, and that any proposal short of this amounts to amnesty. I disagree.
“I believe that illegal immigrants who have roots in our country and want to stay should have to pay a meaningful penalty for breaking the law, to pay their taxes, to learn English, and to work in a job for a number of years. People who meet these conditions should be able to apply for citizenship, but approval would not be automatic, and they will have to wait in line behind those who played by the rules and followed the law. What I’ve just described is not amnesty, it is a way for those who have broken the law to pay their debt to society, and demonstrate the character that makes a good citizen.”
Bush urged members of the House and Senate to agree on a comprehensive bill “because all elements of this problem must be addressed together, or none of them will be solved at all.”
Meanwhile, in a meeting with ILIR president Grant Lally in Dundalk, Foreign Minister Ahern said that $50,000 would be provided to further ILIR’s “important work.” During his Irish visit, meanwhile, Lally urged family and friends of undocumented Irish to lobby U.S. legislators in support of immigration reform.
That lobbying continued this week on this side of the Atlantic with an ILIR delegation traveling to Washington, D.C. for meetings with Capitol Hill legislators.