However, advocates for new immigration laws and those working to secure legal status for an estimated 40,000 undocumented Irish were holding out hope that some measure of reform can be salvaged before Congress rises for the summer.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will meet April 27 to consider again a compromise offered by Republican senators Chuck Hagel and Mel Martinez.
It was the Hagel/Martinez measure that formed the core of a compromise pact that looked as if it would bring together those senators who want a path to earned legalization for millions of undocumented and illegal immigrants and those who want to restrict such a move.
“We can no longer afford to delay reform,” said the GOP’s John McCain and Democrat Edward Kennedy in a statement as the apparent deal came to light.
The Hagel/Martinez bill proposes to divide the illegal population into those in the U.S. longer than five years and those in the country for less than that time.
Those here longer than five years would be offered possible earned legalization. Such a development would have affected many of the undocumented Irish, though what precise portion of the total was unclear.
As the apparent deal emerged from the Senate late last week, and just before it broke up for its present two week Easter recess, the seeming progress was welcomed by various Irish political parties and in a statement by Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern.
In the U.S., the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform also welcomed the agreement even while looking ahead with concern to the House/Senate conference phase of the reform debate.
That phase, however, became moot as the initial plaudits and announcements of a breakthrough retreated under pressure from Senators who challenged the compromise from both ends of the debate spectrum, largely by presenting amendments and raising technical issues.
The angst and rancor was particularly evident in Republican ranks. That party has advocates of both earned legalization — John McCain being the most prominent – but also contains fierce critics of any changes in the law that would appear to grant amnesty to illegals.
At the same time, Republicans also pointed accusing fingers at Democrats they claimed were pressing the reform issue to the point that it was turning off some potential Republican supporters of change.
With the deal off, Senators left Washington even as mass rallies in support of reform took to the streets in cites across the country.
Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter said he hopes that tempers would be sufficiently cooled when Congress resumes for members to resume efforts to forge a lasting compromises.
However, senators will be returning to a crowded business calendar and the suggestions of some legislators that the immigration issue, given its complexities and highly emotional core, might be better addressed next year.
This would not be good news for the undocumented Irish, many of who are unable to return to Ireland for even the most pressing personal and family reasons because they fear being unable to get back into the U.S.
One veteran Irish reform campaigner, meanwhile, told the Echo that the current impasse was not unfamiliar and that the immigration reform bills that gave birth to the Donnelly and Morrison visa schemes appeared to die on Capitol Hill only to rise again from what appeared like the deepest partisan rancor.
Should the Senate manage to build a consensus a second time around, the conference with the House of Representatives could turn out to be the biggest threat to comprehensive reform.
The House has already passed the Sensenbrenner/King bill, a measure that deals exclusively with border control and national security.
The authors of the bill, GOP Reps. James Sensenbrenner and Peter King, together with House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Henry Hyde, have written the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stating that they shared with the hierarchy both a frustration with the current immigration system, and an interest in fixing the system “in a fair and compassionate manner.”
The Sensenbrenner/King bill, H.R. 4437, was, they said, a solid first step in an effort to fix a broken immigration system. It would not, they wrote, be the
“final product” on the issue.
The trio expressed particular concern in the letter about cross-border human trafficking but stressed that there was no intent in the bill to criminalize people who offered humanitarian assistance to illegals.
The trio concluded: “Lastly, we know many of you are concerned about the House bill’s provision making illegal presence a felony. We share that concern. As you should know, during the House debate, Chairman Sensenbrenner offered an amendment to reduce the bill’s penalty for illegal presence from a felony to a misdemeanor.
“Unfortunately, this amendment was unsuccessful, primarily because all but eight of our Democratic colleagues decided to play political games by voting to make all illegal immigrants felons. A felony penalty is neither appropriate nor workable. We remain committed to reducing this penalty and working with you to this end.”