Chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade Pat Breen led a delegation from the Joint Oireachtas Committee to Washington last week to lobby for Immigration Reform. He reflects on his visit and the prospects now for a deal for the undocumented Irish.
“There was a real cause for celebration by the undocumented Irish and their lobby groups in early summer this year when the U S Senate passed a pro-immigration bill by 68 votes to 32. By September, all eyes turned to the House of Representatives where on their return; they were expected to focus on immigration as part of their work programme. But unexpected events in Syria and difficult exchanges over the budget/debt crisis have brought uncertainty to any prospects of US Immigration Reform. The Republicans took a real bruising over the budget/debt crisis deal and as a result, there was a high degree of uncertainty and unwillingness by some of them to engage in immigration issues.
Last July, the Taoiseach and Tanaiste asked me to lead an all party delegation of members from the Joint Committee of Foreign Affairs and Trade to lobby on the Governments behalf for the undocumented Irish in the United States. The timing of our visit last week was perfect with President Obama making a keynote address on immigration reform and I was delighted to be invited to this address in the East Room of the White House. The President focused very much to invited audience on the importance of putting pressure on US Congressman to get the job done and this is exactly what we were doing during our 4 day visit to the Capital.
There is a window of opportunity and a chance that some immigration legalisation can go through the House sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Failure to do so before the end of January could see immigration reform off the agenda as republican and democratic primaries are schedule to happen from May onwards in preparation for November Elections and of , the Big issue of a budget has to be decided in the New Year.
On the eve of our visit to Capitol Hill, we had a very good working meeting with the Irish American Lobby Groups including Ciaran Staunton of the ILRG and Billy Lawless of the Chicago Celts. Billy is a Galway man, known to many in County Clare and owns “The Gage “, a famous Restaurant in downtown Chicago and works closely with Clare priest, Fr Michael Leonard on Irish Immigration issues. I spoke to Fr. Leonard on the plight of our Clare migrants during my time in Washington.
Our working day in Capitol Hill commenced at 8am and continued throughout the day with a series of meetings with key Republican Politicians who we believe thought our new Irish Ambassador Anne Anderson and her team in Washington could sway other Republican congressmen. In all, we met 15 congressmen including the powerful majority whip, Kevin McCarthy who promised to facilitate immigration legalisation coming to the house. House Speaker, John Boehner and Majority leader Eric Cantor also fully supported the Plight of the undocumented Irish who live in constant fear of deportation. We also met a key democrat Luis Gutierrez of Chicago who we believe may be working in the background with some key republicans to bring some legalisation to the house on a bipartisan approach.
Among them is former vice presidential candidate and front runner for the 2016 Presidential Elections, republican, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin who is Chairman of the powerful Budgets Committee and has given his full support for legalisation and for undocumented Irish.
I have met Paul on a number of occasions during official visits to Washington and I knew of his interest in Hurling. His ancestors come from the Tipperary Kilkenny border and I took the opportunity to present him with a Jersey of the All Ireland Champions, it was a proud moment for me as a Clare man as this man could be the next President of USA. Paul had heard of the two great games and asked me about our county and told me that the jersey would take pride and place in his native Wisconsin.
Our visit to the White House included an audience with President Obama and key meetings with his senior advisors on Immigration who we briefed on our meetings on Capitol Hill. This visit was significant and important, the timing was right as it was remarked that we were the only politicians to lobby on behalf of any other country. There is no doubt that the relationship that exists between Ireland and the US is special. Successive generations of Irish immigrants including those from County Clare and their families have helped build America and contributed in positive ways to US society at all levels. While Irish Nationals form only a relatively small part of the overall number of undocumented migrants in the US (50,000 out of 11 million in total), the desire for a solution to their current situation is urgent for them and their families and for the Irish Government.
I believe that it is the human stories I told, that influenced all the US politicians we met, like those that cannot travel home for happy and sad family events. I told the story that it was not uncommon at Irish funerals nowadays to see somebody holding up a smart phone or tablet so that an undocumented son or daughter or brother or sister in the US can connect in a small way with the funeral of their loved ones and the undertaker from County Clare who had now a live Internet cam connection in his funeral home for loved ones to see. These situations and the other harrowing stories I am told from constituents in Milltown Malbay, Feakle , Lisdoonvarna, Kilfenora, Crusheen and all over County Clare of loved ones who seek legalisation drives the passion in me to push and support comprehensive immigration reform in my privileged role as Chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs.
There is a window of opportunity here for immigration reform and if a bipartisan approach is taken by US politicians, this very important issue could heal the deep divide caused by the fiscal crisis. And for those Republican and Democratic politicians, who are working for a solution here, there will be a reward for comprehensive immigration reform for our undocumented Irish and that will be support in the forthcoming elections by the 40 million Americans who claim Irish heritage. I believe the Republicans can show real leadership here and I emphasised this in all our meetings.
Events are changing rapidly in Capitol Hill and the Irish Government and Lobby groups will continue their work. We know that there are some Republicans in the tea party group will never except migrants. Following our visit, i believe we may not get the pathway to citizenship, but we could get legalisation for our 50,000 undocumented Irish and some flow for future migration with E3 visas. There are some Republicans in the Tea Party Group who will never except migrants. As one Congressman said to me about a certain politician ” If The Lord above asked for Citizenship, he would refuse him “. But, the majority can work without them.
Congress can work well together and act quickly, if the will is there, maybe it is this one issue that can heal the wounds. I remain optimistic.”