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Inside File: Teddy’s still the man

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Back in the early days of September 1988, a congressional committee in Washington, D.C., came to order in order to hear complaint and testimony and argument regarding the state of U.S. immigration law.

The House Immigration Sub-Committee was chaired that day by Rep. Roman Mazzoli. At the outset of the hearing, which was open to the public and attended by a number of Irish-American immigration activists, Mazzoli posed a question: Was the door to America open too narrowly, too widely or just right.

This was not the first time in the nation’s history that the question had been asked. Indeed, it was something of a constant in U.S. politics. Mazzoli could have been talking about the door to Ellis Island as much as a skyway at Kennedy Airport.

In the room that day to argue that the entrance was too narrow for the Irish in particular was Sen. Edward Kennedy, prime architect of the 1965 immigration reform act, the legislation that had effectively narrowed the aperture to begin with.

The 1965 bill, very much in the spirit of those changing times, had done away with national quotas and set an effective ceiling on immigrant numbers from the old reliable nations in Europe, Ireland among them.

The bill’s effect on the Irish-American community was pretty well immediate. By late 1966, concerned Irish in New York felt the need to band together and fight. Thus was created the American Irish Immigration Committee.

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Just as the Cork Association would be the force behind the birth of the Irish Immigration Reform Movement 20 years later, the Limerick Association was the lynchpin of the ’66 alliance, a big tent that included the GAA and AOH.

The new grouping was chaired by an attorney named John P. Collins. It had its work cut out, but also its target clearly defined. The target was a matter of raw numbers.

In the first three months of 1965, 1,036 visas had been allocated to Irish applicants by the U.S. Embassy in Dublin. Irish migration to the U.S. was tailing off at this point anyway and was a mere trickle compared to the 1950s.

But the new law would turn even that trickle into a drip. After its enactment, and during the first three months of 1966, only 82 U.S. visas were issued in Dublin. Those numbers, when multiplied over a 12-month period, almost match the annual totals of Schumer diversity visas handed to Irish applicants in recent years. Those low numbers have drawn scorn from contemporary Irish immigrant advocates.

Still, the AIIC would have some success. One jarring aspect of the ’65 law was its closing off of certain job categories to immigrants. Forty-nine categories of employment were suddenly beyond reach. The AIIC played a key role in recovering 16 of those for eager and newly arrived hands, Irish and otherwise.

The broader battle to reform the reform would, however, prove more difficult. The early 1970s would see potential relief in the form of the Rodino-Ryan Bill — named after Reps. Peter Rodino and William Ryan — in the House of Representatives. But the bill was destined to fail in the Senate in late 1972. Ted Kennedy was viewed as being crucial to its success in that chamber. Whether Kennedy had been unwilling, or unable, to secure passage was never quite determined.

But 16 years later there would be no doubt as to which way Kennedy was leaning. At the 1988 House Sub-Committee hearing, Kennedy spoke forcefully of the unintended consequences of the ’65 act. He also complained of the “excessively restrictive force” leveled against Irish immigration, a force that, ironically, could be traced to that same legislation that he himself had crafted.

Kennedy’s argument would prove to be a boost for at least stopgap reform that took shape in subsequent years. The Donnelly and Morrison visa programs would ease restrictions felt by many individual Irish.

But they did little in the end on behalf of the principle of relatively unimpeded Irish migration to America as it had worked in former times.

Jumping ahead another 14 years and Kennedy is still in the immigration reform cockpit. Indeed, he now chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Sub-Committee on Immigration. A few days ago, this committee met to discuss immigration reform. At least a version of it.

The world has changed drastically since 1988. You simply can’t mention immigration reform anymore without, in the same breath, talking about homeland security.

Indeed, as Kennedy stated in his opening remarks, the sub-committee was meeting to consider “the many immigration issues relatedto homeland security reform.”

It was, interestingly enough, not the other way around.

“Immigration is a central part of our heritage and history,” Kennedy said. “It is essential to who we are as Americans. Continued immigration is part of our national well-being and our strength in today’s world. In defending the nation, we cannot lose sight of our tradition as a nation of immigrants and a safe haven for the oppressed.”

With that, Kennedy turned a gimlet eye on the Bush administration’s proposal to include the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the new Department of Homeland Security.

The idea, Kennedy argued, “raised serious concerns about the consequences for immigration law and policy, and the adjudication of immigration services and benefits.”

The discussion, as it progressed, became more clearly concerned with reform of the INS rather than reform of immigration law, or indeed of finding a means of alleviating the problems of the undocumented, many of them residents of the U.S. for years who are working hard and raising families.

Kennedy, like just about every other legislator in Washington concerned with the immigration issue, is now clearly having to wrap all his long-held views and ambitions in a national security blanket.

Just what effect this will have on the chances of immigration reform favorable to the Irish, those already here in particular, remains to be seen.

But one thing is for sure: There will be little chance of any improvement at all in the lot of the Irish, undocumented and potential legal immigrants alike, without the interest and influence of the senior senator from Massachusetts.

It has been this way now for more than three decades. Prayers for Teddy’s lasting good health would not be amiss.

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