The opinion article by Alliance president Trina Vargo, who for years worked on the immigration reform issue in her role as a top aide to Senator Edward Kennedy, has caused a storm of criticism on both sides of the Atlantic.
And particular fury has been directed at one sentence in the op-ed that uses a phrase: “put lipstick on that pig.”
The opinion piece, headlined “Irish illegals are not a special case,” appeared in the Times on Friday, Nov. 16.
It argued that what it called “a small group of Irish-Americans” was working “to encourage the US Congress to carve out a special deal for illegal Irish immigrants, while leaving behind the millions of others in the same situation. They are wrong to single out one group for preferential treatment.’
The term “small group” has been interpreted as a reference to the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform which has been campaigning for a comprehensive reform bill in Washington covering undocumented and illegal immigrants of all nationalities or, failing that, a bilateral deal between the Irish and U.S. government that would better facilitate the movement of Irish and American citizens between the two countries.
In the op-ed, Vargo acknowledges that the U.S. immigration system needs fixing and notes that “sadly” the effort to bring about change had been stalled.
“But to support a special deal that would single out illegal Irish immigrants for preferential treatment would be morally wrong, could harm the US-Ireland relationship, damage the high regard in which Irish-Americans are held, and lead to a divisive debate in the US between the Hispanic community and the Irish-American community,” Vargo wrote.
“The Irish economy is strong, and a special deal is not justified on economic grounds. The majority of those attending the rallies for the illegal Irish immigrants are young people, people who came to the United States when jobs were plentiful at home,” she stated.
And she continued: “These are not people who fled extreme economic hardship, political persecution, physical torture, or an undemocratic government. Jobs are so plentiful in Ireland that in recent years, Government officials have traveled to the US to urge the Irish to return home.”
Vargo opined that supporters of a special deal for the Irish had pointed to a precedent, a deal with Australia.
“What they neglect to point out is that those visas had nothing to do with illegal immigrants. They were about trade agreements and facilitating the movement of professionals to the US. They were temporary visas subject to stringent eligibility requirements. The visas were only available to those with specific professional skills and for specific jobs pursuant to trade agreements.
There was also talk, she wrote, “of trying to mask a special deal by cloaking it in innocuous immigration provisions but this is just an attempt to, as they say on Wall Street, ‘put lipstick on that pig,'”
The latter phrase has caused an especially strong critical reaction. ILIR vice-chairman Ciaran Staunton said it raised all manner of negative historical images that had been wrongly applied ton Irish people.
“The overall numbers of Irish coming to the US have decreased because fewer Irish wish to move here,” Vargo continued.
The success of the Irish economy was a good thing, she said, and this success had benefited America.
“I fear, however, that if the future of the US-Ireland relationship rests on Irish immigration, the relationship will falter. Those who care about the relationship should note and expand upon the business and cultural ties, academic and student exchanges, as well as legal immigration. The constant flow of citizens between our two countries is a positive thing that should be nurtured. But given the success of the Irish economy, the future of the US-Ireland relationship will be based more on innovation, imagination, cultivation, and communication, than on immigration. This is to be embraced.”
Vargo wrote that she was “very aware” of the incalculable contributions the Irish had made and would continue to make to America.
“I am fully supportive of legalizing the Irish, but along with everyone else, not at the expense of anyone else. Many Irish remember that their ancestors who arrived in America in the 19th century were greeted with discrimination and were told ‘no Irish need apply.’ It would be wrong for the Irish now to suggest that ‘no Mexican need apply,'” she concluded.
In a response published by the Irish Times on Tuesday, ILIR president Niall O’Dowd said that Vargo had taken the view that advocates for the undocumented Irish in America should wait for comprehensive immigration reform rather than try and remedy their situation now.
“She implied that Irish-American and Irish Government lobbying for green cards for their community and citizens was racist.
“She said current efforts to pass legislation helping the Irish were ‘morally wrong’ and were like putting “lipstick on that pig.'”
O’Dowd wrote that these “were deeply offensive remarks” to those tens of thousands of Irish abroad whose futures, and in many cases that of their American-born children, are hanging in the balance.”
The US-Ireland Alliance, he wrote, “busies itself with an annual Hollywood gala, selling Ryder Cup executive boxes and sending well-heeled Americans, both elite college students and golfers, to Ireland.
“Their president’s intervention on this issue is puzzling. Making ‘moral’ judgments on undocumented immigrants and their supporters is hardly the expressed aim of the alliance. It appears that board members were not consulted on this grand new project.”
O’Dowd rejected the suggestion that ILIR was a “small group” pointing to a membership of 17,000 and rallies by the group that had attracted thousands of supporters.
“Vargo concludes her comments by stating ‘it is wrong for the Irish to suggest that ‘no Mexican need apply.’ No Irish have ever stated such a thing to my knowledge, and to infer it is downright insulting. Perhaps she might consider sticking to Mitchell scholarships, golf tournaments and Hollywood galas,” O’Dowd concluded.
Ancient Order of Hibernians National Vice President Seamus Boyle also took aim at the Vargo op-ed.
“It is very obvious to the membership of the A.O.H. in America that the recent article by Trina Vargo delivers a message that she is out of touch with the real situation for the undocumented Irish immigrants living in the USA and their families back home in Ireland,” Boyle said in a statement.
“The Irish Government must make every effort to aid these families here in the USA and bring comfort to their loved ones across the Atlantic. Many governments, including Australia, have already come to agreements that relieve the pressure on their citizens in the USA. Why would the government in Dublin refuse to respond to their own citizens in need?
“As an organization that has dealt with immigration from Ireland for more than 170 years and has always worked with the actual families we believe that we are much more attuned to this tragic situation than Ms. Vargo. She truly needs to speak to these families first hand before writing any articles with an opinion on these efforts.
“The Irish Government needs to do what is right for their constituents and that is to work for legislation which will benefit their citizens and may help bring positive solutions for all undocumented immigrants,” Boyle stated.
A statement issued on behalf of the Boston-based Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers said that the “negative and often vitriolic debate on immigration” had hurt all immigrants “so we have a responsibility to keep accuracy and civility in our conversations on this issue.”