The four members of the House of Representatives who serve as co-chairs of the Ad Hoc Committee for Irish Affairs are guardians of Irish America’s policy aspirations for Ireland.
So too is the chairman of the Friends of Ireland group.
But while they have little problem in standing on common ground with regard to, say, the peace process, immigration is proving far more divisive.
Indeed, the ad hoc foursome have sharply parted ways on the issue.
This partition is reflected along party lines and was clearly evident in last month’s House vote on H.R. 4437, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 or, as it is more commonly known, the Sensenbrenner/King bill.
The roll call vote took place at 10:33 p.m. on Dec. 16. When the dust had settled the yeas had triumphed by 239-182 with 13 members of the 435-member House not voting either way.
It was a comfortable enough margin of victory for a bill that has sent shudders through the ranks of the undocumented and those who advocate a path to legalization for millions of undocumented and illegal immigrants, perhaps as many as 40,000 Irish among them.
Rep. Peter King, one of the Republican co-chairs, was, of course one of the yea voters. So too was his fellow GOP co-chair, upstate New York Rep. John Sweeney.
The two Democratic co-chairs, Richie Neal of Massachusetts and Joe Crowley, whose New York City district is home to many immigrants, voted no.
Jim Walsh, author of the Walsh Visa program and who is chairman of the Friends of Ireland, voted in support of the measure.
In the end, H.R. 4437 drew support from 203 Republicans and 36 Democrats. The opposition was comprised of 164 Democrats, 17 Republicans and a sole independent.
The 13 members who did not vote came from both parties.
Interestingly, one of the Republicans who voted no was a representative who has been spoken about in the past as a possible Ad Hoc co-chair.
New Jersey’s Chris Smith is prominent when it comes to Irish-American concerns while on domestic issues he has taken the kind of varied positions that attract support from both Republican and more Democratic-leaning voters.
The break down for the H.R. 4437 vote revealed what while there might be a neat split at the chairmanship level for the two Irish groupings in Congress, the immigration conundrum is not stirring sentiment in a way that falls neatly into party camps in the broader political sense.
Indeed, the difficulties embodied in the reform issue seem to collide in an as yet unclaimed middle ground, especially when President George W. Bush speaks out on immigration as he did last week in his State of the Union speech.
The president wants a guest-worker plan and sees immigrant labor as being vital to the economy. At the same time, he opposes an amnesty for the undocumented and illegal. At the same time again, Bush has not clearly defined what he believes is an amnesty.
H.R. 4437 does not include any proposal that fits any current congressional definition of an amnesty.
It does not propose a blanket pardon and it does not suggest an earned legalization program.
Indeed, the bill – which will be the main House input into the debate that will also feature the McCain/Kennedy Senate bill – reads as if it was crafted within the ranks of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, a House group chaired by Colorado GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo.
The CIRC, founded by Tancredo in May 1999, wants to see the borders secured and tighter internal enforcement of immigration law.
It wants to ensure that any proposed guest-worker program is purely temporary for each recipient of a guest worker visa. It opposes outright amnesty, earned legalization or any combination of both.
The caucus also supports efforts to terminate the diversity-visa lottery and wants to reduce the overall number of immigrants admitted legally to the U.S. each year.
The caucus currently has 81 House members on its rolls, so it is a formidable faction.
Reps. King and Sensenbrenner are not members but Rep. Sweeney’s name is included in the CIRC website membership list which is mostly made up of Republicans with a smattering of Democrats.
Rep. Tancredo is sometimes portrayed as a maverick on the immigration issue, but his views have been attracting growing support.
He lost no time in criticizing Bush for even the few words that he devoted to immigration in the State of the Union address.
“Sadly, the president missed yet another great opportunity to correct his course on immigration reform tonight,” Tancredo said in a post-speech statement.
“The president should have clarified his plan and joined the forces in Congress holding the line against amnesty. Instead, Americans will have to wait and wonder where the president stands on securing our borders, while he pushes for guest workers.
“The president must enforce our immigration laws before we consider any guest worker proposal. Until we bring law and order to our border anarchy, importing more workers into the equation is out of the question,” Tancredo stated.
The caucus website includes a scorecard on immigration compiled by a group called “Americans for Better Immigration.”
The group ranks members of the House and Senate as if they were sitting in a classroom. Grades range from A plus to F minus.
The more restrictive the view of a Senate or House member the higher the grade. Rep. Tancredo, for example, scores an A though not even he is among 13 legislators credited with an A plus.
It’s a tough class.
And right at the back of it is Ad Hoc co-chair Joe Crowley.
Crowley preceded the State of the Union with a statement in which he described H.R. 4437 as a bill that was not pro-border security, but an anti-immigrant bill that went beyond securing the nation’s borders to the point that groups such as Catholic Charities and others could be charged with a criminal offense “just for helping immigrants.”
Crowley supports securing America’s borders so that everyone who enters and leaves is known to immigration authorities. He also wants to increase economic assistance to countries of origin so that people would not feel that they had to enter the U.S. illegally for work.
He additionally supports a temporary guest worker plan that includes a pathway to eventual citizenship a la McCain/Kennedy.
Americans for Better Immigration is not impressed. Crowley scores an F minus on the scorecard. Twice.
This is because the group rates legislators at career level and in another category it calls “recent.”
Crowley’s fellow Democratic Ad Hoc co-chair, Richie Neal, scores a double F but Pete King, despite his co-sponsorship of H.R. 4437, has only moved from D plus to C plus. Jim Walsh has a career D plus that has become a recent C while Chris Smith has advanced from D plus to C minus.
John Sweeney rates higher in the group’s view. He gets a B in both categories.
Over in the Senate, John McCain and Ted Kennedy – twin pillars of the bill that will be most directly opposing H.R. 4437 in the House/Senate conference phase of the debate – both score will down AFBI’s list.
McCain has gone from a career D to a recent F though Kennedy, curiously enough, has nudged upwards from a D minus to a D.
The scatter gun effect thrown up by immigration merely darkens the already murky waters swirling around Capitol Hill in what is additionally an election year.
In the end though, it is the Republicans who are in the majority in both houses of Congress so the course of immigration law rests, at least more evidently so, in that party’s hands.
And there are definitely two GOP hands: Tancredo and his supporters on the one, McCain and his backers on the other.
One of the latter is former GOP presidential hopeful Jack Kemp who recently wrote on a website that H.R. 4437 was so overreaching that, it could become the Proposition 187 of the 21st century.
“It should be recalled that Proposition 187 was a draconian effort in the mid-1990s by the state of California to drive undocumented aliens out of the country and deter their entry by cutting them off from all public services, including education, welfare and other social services such as medical care. The effect was to drastically alienate Hispanic voters in California from the Republican Party,” Kemp wrote.
And he further opined: “Our country needs immigration reforms that allow undocumented workers of good character who have resided in the United States for many years to apply for documented status; allow those who have lost their status as legal residents, but remain eligible to become permanent residents, to remain in the United States while seeking to regain their status; and help reduce family backlogs by providing more visas for close family members of citizens and permanent residents. We need a guest-worker program, such as that proposed by President Bush, that seeks to fulfill the work of Father Ted Hesburgh of Notre Dame, who said, ‘Close the back door of illegal immigration so as to keep open the golden door of legal immigration.'”
It will be around this final assertion that much of the keenly anticipated Capitol Hill immigration debate will revolve.