The newly arrived Irish of the 1860s might have been desperately poor, but at least they were legal. And that is a status that all too many of their more prosperous descendants would envy today.
The phenomenon of the undocumented Irish exploded into public view in the 1980s and has been a reality for a fluctuating number of Irish immigrants ever since.
Various changes in U.S. immigration law, with reform acts coming on stream every decade or so, have relieved the pressure for some but merely compounded it for others.
The reform measures of the mid-1990s brought no relief for the undocumented Irish. And the increased scrutiny of travel in the aftermath of Sept. 11 has only made a tight situation tighter for thousands of them. But some relief might now be on the horizon.
Several factors are combining in a way that could result in the emergence of significant immigration reform from the just-elected 108th Congress. Reform that falls into the category of the truly significant will include relief for the undocumented in the form of a path to legal residence and, ultimately, U.S. citizenship.
The seeds of reform have already been sown by the outgoing 107th Congress.
Earlier this year, the Senate majority leader, Democrat Tom Daschle, introduced a bill aimed at securing a temporary revival of immigration provision 245i, the measure that allows eligible undocumented to apply for legal status while remaining in the U.S. and thus avoiding the dreaded “bars of excludability.”
Such bars can mean a ban from the U.S. lasting up to 10 years.
Daschle’s bill, S.2493, or the Uniting Families Act 2002, was introduced on the Senate floor last May but was immediately parked in the Judiciary Committee, where it has rested ever since. S.2493 is co-sponsored by Senators Edward Kennedy and Chris Dodd.
Kennedy’s spokeswoman on immigration issues, Stephanie Cutter, said that efforts to reinvigorate S.2493 had been stalled as national security became the main focus of Congress. Cutter is not optimistic that S.2493 would get an airing in the lame duck session of the outgoing 107th Congress. But she hopes that it will be given a fresh start in the new 108th Congress when it convenes in January.
“The 245i bill is still pending,” Cutter said.
When he introduced his bill last May, Daschle was working against the backdrop of the intense debate on border security, one that would lead to new legislation designed to make America safe from people far more dangerous than the Irish gangs of mid-19th century New York.
But passage of border security legislation, was, in Daschle’s view, just “an important first step in moving forward with comprehensive immigration reform.”
He expressed regret at the time that 245i was excluded from emerging security-based immigration legislation.
“As I have said on many occasions, I am strongly committed to a meaningful 245i extension,” Daschle told the Senate.
As originally written, Daschle’s 245i extension bill envisioned an application deadline of April 30, 2003. If Congress only gets around to debating S.2493 in the new year, that deadline will have to be extended.
Either way, Daschle said he expected his bill to receive strong bipartisan support whenever it surfaced again.
“I know both the president and Senator [Trent] Lott have repeatedly expressed their desire to pass 245i legislation. It is my hope that they will work with me to help get it passed very soon,” Daschle said.
Not soon enough for thousands of undocumented Irish.
Daschle’s tip of the hat to President Bush and the Senate minority leader was both an invitation and a challenge.
It also pointed to the probability of growing competition between the Democrats and the Republicans for the immigration high ground in a Congress that will culminate in the 2004 presidential contest.
That sense of competition was boosted by the unveiling in recent days of the Earned Legalization and Family Reunification Act of 2002, Rep. Richard Gephardt’s proposal to drastically trim the rolls of the nation’s undocumented population, which, by most estimates, is now at 8 million.
That immigration reform might be a hot political button over the next couple of years is grounded in economic and demographic reality. The two, in turn, are combining to create what immigrant advocates say is a new political imperative.
“America’s immigration laws are colliding with reality, and reality is winning,” Daniel T. Griswold, associate director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, a paper that has been consistently in favor of increased legal immigration.
“Current immigration law has made lawbreakers out of millions of hard-working, otherwise law-abiding people whose only ‘crime’ is a desire to work in our market economy for mutual advantage.”
Music to the ears of the undocumented Irish.
But will it play in Washington?
Margie McHugh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella advocacy organization representing 150 immigrant groups, said that attitudes toward legal immigration and the legalizing of the undocumented has been changing in the last several years.
“The changing view has been embraced by both business and labor,” McHugh said, noting that both the AFL-CIO and employers, especially in service industries, are now on the same page. Indeed, service-sector employers, including Marriott hotels and McDonald’s, are now advocating reform under the banner of a group called the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition.
At the same time, according to McHugh, the AFL-CIO, under its current leader, John Sweeney, has moved away from a position of viewing the undocumented as unwelcome competition for American workers. It now believes that it has to bring its policies into line with reality in the workplace.
McHugh said that even Fed chairman Alan Greenspan was now on the side of bringing the eligible undocumented into the mainstream workforce.
The merging of such powerful forces will have an effect on the way that the incoming Congress moves on immigration reform. And it looks as if the necessary alignment of such forces might now be in place.
McHugh indicated that the rising clamor for reform will spark competition between the Democrats and Republicans who see it as a big step in the current courting of the growing Hispanic vote in particular.
According to McHugh, the Gephardt bill is a sign that Democrats are serious about changing current immigration law and easing the burdens of the undocumented. Republicans, she said, would not stand back and allow the Democrats to coast to victory and claim all the credit for reform.
“Bush needs to court Latinos and this will favor a [Republican] legislative program,” McHugh said.
Seeking the “bounce”
However, she added, the president and his party are more likely to act closer to the 2004 election so that both would benefit from the electoral “bounce” that would accrue from having been seen as the main guiding hand for any reform.
Against this, McHugh, who is Irish American with family roots in Leitrim, said that the Democrats could push for even greater reform sooner than the presidential election year. She noted that the Irish had watched the now stalled U.S.-Mexico talks with the same concern as other immigrant groups.
The talks between Presidents Bush and Vicente Fox of Mexico were aimed at securing relief for an estimated 3 million Mexicans, both undocumented and illegal. Those talks were put on the backburner after 9/11 but will not stay there.
McHugh said that there are fears in other immigrant communities that adjustment for Mexicans would leave the others out. The “new dynamic” for other groups, including the Irish, she indicated, would be how to remain relevant in the face of this possibility.
“The Irish and other immigrant groups have to make the case for a rollback of the more draconian measures being employed against the undocumented, including those introduced after 9/11,” McHugh said.
Making the case on behalf of the Irish might not be that easy. Because of their tax and funding status, the Irish immigration advice centers operating in various U.S. cities have to be cautious about how they present their views on immigration law or desired reform. Hence, the preference of those running the centers is for any political agitation to be taken up by a revived Irish Immigration Reform Movement or a similar organization.
The politically-savvy IIRM successfully lobbied for what amounted to an amnesty for undocumented Irish in the early 1990s.
“There is a need for a IIRM-style organization to be brought back,” Tom Conaghan, director of the Irish Immigration and Pastoral Center in Philadelphia, said last week.
The Philadelphia center hosted the recent annual meeting of the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers USA. The gathering discussed, among other issues, the need for relief for the undocumented and a possible campaign in that direction by the IIRM or a group like it.
“The Irish still have a strong voice in Washington and we should use it,” Conaghan said.