Since its founding, the ILIR has galvanized Irish communities across the U.S. in support of comprehensive immigration reform. Three thousand people attended ILIR rallies in Washington, and another thousand turned out for a rally in Dublin. Among those who attended were Senators John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Edward Kennedy, all key figures in the future battle for immigration reform.
We in the ILIR aligned ourselves with the wider immigration effort based in Washington, DC. We are now part of the national Strategy Council of the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Indeed, Sen. McCain described our lobbying as instrumental to his efforts in the Senate.
However, our community is in deep difficulty. A two-tier structure has emerged in Irish neighborhoods over legal status. Organizations such as the GAA are unable to play games in Ireland because of visa issues, while Irish immigration centers across the U.S. are reporting a surge in new arrivals.
It has always been the ILIR’s position that Irish immigration to the U.S. is cyclical, depending on the Irish economy. Through the 1920s, the 1950s and the 1980s, Irish people moved to the U.S. for work, and we are seeing the signs of a new cycle as the Irish economy softens.
This issue appears to be more pressing now. The Economist recently warned that the weakening Irish property market could topple the country’s economy because of Ireland’s dependence on construction-related revenue. Unemployment in the Republic is higher than it has been in a decade, while the first quarter’s increase in unemployment was the worst since 1975. Thousands of construction jobs are also at risk in the North because of the downturn in building activity.
This is all the more reason to seek a legal pathway for Irish immigration. From the very beginning, the ILIR aligned ourselves with the Kennedy/McCain bill, which sought to create a conditional path to legal status for all undocumented immigrants. Kennedy/McCain did not promote amnesty, and neither did we. We have never sought amnesty for the undocumented Irish. We sought legality.
When the bill failed, the ILIR initiated a series of high-level political discussions aimed at providing a new visa program between Ireland and the U.S., based on the Australian E3 model. The E3 program could have been tweaked to provide a much-needed bridge for the Irish in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform. Under the E3, Australia can send 10,500 people (plus spouses) to the U.S. on renewable two-year work visas. The visas can be extended indefinitely, and it gives the spouse a work permit which can also be extended indefinitely. If Australia can do it, why not Ireland?
We see no difficulty with Ireland pursuing a bilateral agenda, given the fact that many other countries, including Mexico and some EU states, are doing so. Just last week, the Irish Times reported that the Czech Republic and other new EU countries attempted to forge a separate bilateral deal on entry visas with the U.S. government. Everyone is seeking access to America. We should not apologize for seeking a deal for Ireland similar to the ones that Australia, Chile and Singapore have achieved in recent times.
This is not “putting lipstick on a pig,” as Trina Vargo of the U.S. Ireland Alliance has claimed. This is pure Washington politics. This is how the political process works in the U.S. American politics is a creative process, and we cannot be intimidated by the “sky is falling” people who say nothing is possible. This was the same type of rhetoric that surrounded the Morrison and Donnelly visas, as well as the Northern peace process and the American involvement.
Unfortunately, through no fault of our own, the “E3” initiative has stalled, condemning tens of thousands of undocumented Irish to a precarious future here in the U.S.
In the meantime, there has been talk of a so-called “Super-J” visa which would give college graduates a short-term work permit, possibly as short as 12 months. It does nothing for our undocumented, and will only exacerbate the problem as people stay on. This short-term effort will become the Irish American community’s long-term problem. The Irish immigration centers and the ILIR have already advised the Irish Government of this. Quite apart from this, recruitment consultants have also dismissed 12-month working visas, saying professional companies would not hire people for such a short period of time.
Moreover, we believe it’s time to lift the ambition level. Let’s work towards a solution which reverses what Sen. Kennedy described as the one of the unforeseen consequences of the 1965 Immigration Act: the “dramatic and significant” discrimination against Irish immigrants to the U.S.
Speaking in 2006, Sen. Kennedy said, “Prior to the ’65 act, we had about 30,000 Irish that were coming in, and then we had those reduced to about 20,000 . . . But then with the changes that were made and even the acceptance of the diversity program, each and every one of those brought a gradual reduction, really unintended. What we were trying to do was eliminate the discrimination that existed in the law, but the way that that legislation was developed worked in a very dramatic and significant way against the Irish.”
The 1965 Act was the last major piece of immigration reform in the U.S., and the next Congress could well see similar reforms. We look forward to working with the new Congress, the new President and the new Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, on immigration reform. The ILIR was founded and partly funded (about 20 per cent) with the support of the Irish government, and we deeply appreciate that support. The Irish government is a key part of this effort; they have the resources to reach into the very heart of Capitol Hill and the White House. Despite recent differences between ILIR and the Irish government, we fully intend to continue to work closely with them to ensure that we can win visas for the undocumented and a new legal path to America.
In the next few weeks, we will be going to the community seeking to build a long-term plan for ILIR, so that we can have the resources and ambition to pursue immigration reform until we are successful. We still have two objectives: a path to legal status for the undocumented Irish in the U.S.; and a path to legal status for future Irish immigrants. We will not give up until those objectives have been achieved.
This issue is bigger than one person; it’s about the Irish American community. It’s about the undocumented Irish immigrants in the U.S. and the people who cannot come here legally. We cannot condone a two-tier status for Irish immigrants in the U.S. The next Congress may offer the first opportunity to reverse what Sen. Kennedy called the “dramatic and significant” discrimination against Irish immigrants in the 1965 Act. We intend to grasp this opportunity and work toward the future.
Time is ticking. We have moved on, and we anticipate that the Irish American community will move on with us.
Kelly Fincham is the Executive Director of the Irish Lobby for