Can the Irish help reform US immigration?

Tens of thousands of immigration reform supporters march in the 'Rally for Citizenship' on the West Lawn of the US Capitol in Washington, DC

Talk of immigration reform in the US often focuses on Hispanic immigrants, but a small group of Irish activists may have a louder voice in some important circles.

Advocates for US immigration had cause for celebration last week when the Senate passed a pro-immigration bill by a vote of 68 to 32.

The legislation heads next to the House of Representatives.

"The House is controlled by the Republicans, and we have to convince Republicans that this is a good idea," says Ciaran Staunton, who has been lobbying for reform.

He says it in such a matter-of-fact way that it sounds easy - never mind that Republican Senator Rand Paul, who voted against the bill, promised it would be "dead on arrival" once it reached the House.

Never mind that Tennessee Representative Scott DesJarlais says he'll "fight to make sure this bill never reaches the floor".

Never mind that relations between the House and the Senate, and Democrats and Republicans are so fractured it's difficult to get anything done on any topic.

Start Quote

For first time in the history of our two countries, we don't have a flow of Irish coming to the US”

End Quote Siobhan Lyons Immigration activist

Staunton, president of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, thinks he has a good shot of drumming up support. Other activists think so too, thanks in large part to Staunton's thick brogue and Irish background.

"Ciaran and his merry band of warriors do what others can't," says Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group.

"They can be fearless, and go where other activists might have trouble connecting, and they punch above their weight."

Staunton, who has worked closely with New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer during the development of the immigration bill, has also had productive meetings with conservative politicians such as Senator Lindsey Graham, and Representatives Peter King and Paul Ryan - all of whom have Irish roots.

Many conservatives, citing the rapid growth of Hispanic voters in the US, say the bill is necessary to keep the Republican Party relevant. But the Irish connection can add an additional level of persuasion.

"We're meeting with people whose grandparents were immigrants, and I tell them that under the regulations today, their grandparents wouldn't get in," says Staunton, an Irish immigrant who has been in the US for 31 years.

"We were fit to get a message out there, that this isn't just a Hispanic issue."

What's in Senate immigration bill?

  • Path to citizenship for immigrants who arrived illegally before 31 December 2011
  • Billions in funding for border security, including 20,000 new Border Patrol agents, 700 miles of fencing, unmanned drones and electronic surveillance. Border security goals must be met before undocumented immigrants can become permanent residents
  • A start-up visa for foreign entrepreneurs; new visa programmes for low-skilled workers and the agricultural sector
  • All employers must use E-Verify, a programme to verify electronically each employee's legal status within four years

Though Ireland and America have a long immigration history, legal avenues for Irish immigrants vastly diminished after a 1965 bill was passed.

The legislation eliminated country-based immigration quotas that benefited Europeans, and focused instead on offering entry to those with family connections and employment offers.

"The unintended effect of it was that it virtually eliminated immigration from Ireland," says Sharry. "After the 1965 criteria, most immigration came from Latin America and Asia."

Given the "historic closeness" of the US and Ireland, says Sharry, lawmakers and activists have tried to increase the opportunity for Irish to emigrate to the US, including adding 10,000 visas for Irish citizens in the 1990s - language that is also included in the current bill.

Only Ireland and parts of the African diaspora have such visas set aside in the bill.

But Siobhan Lyon, executive director of the Irish Immigration Center of Philadelphia, says it's important that the Irish support the bill to help all immigrants.

"I've heard people say terrible things about immigrants, and I call them out and say, 'I'm an immigrant.' They say, 'Oh, we weren't talking about you Siobhan!' But yet they are," she says.

Mark Daly, Paul Ryan and Ciaran Staunton Ciaran Staunton, right, met with US Congressman Paul Ryan, centre, and Republic of Ireland Senator Mark Daly to discuss immigration reform

"It's important that the Irish stand firm alongside our Hispanic brethren. Sometimes we do have access to people and we do have the ability to change some people's mind," she says.

For instance, she often talks to Irish Americans about how immigration reform is needed so that an Irish worker living here on an expired visa can go back to Ireland to attend his mother's funeral - an issue that resonates with the Irish-American community, but is also applicable to immigrants from all countries.

Irish undocumented

According to Ciaran Staunton, there are about 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants living in the US.

That's just a small fraction of the estimated 11m immigrants living in the US without permission.

But Staunton says it doesn't matter to him if it's "50 or 50,000 Irish".

At the same time, she'll discuss how the current anti-immigration atmosphere in the US has slowed Irish arrivals to the country.

"This is a big problem for the Irish community - for first time in the history of our two countries we don't have a flow of Irish coming to the US," she says.

Opponents of the bill say all immigrants - Irish or otherwise - have to wait their turn.

"The US has the most liberal immigration policy in the world," says Jack Martin, a spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

"We are admitting at the present time under the current law more than a million people a year for legal, permanent residence.

"In addition to which we are allowing close to a million people a year coming into the country as temporary workers.

"We think that it is a mistake to offer legalisation or amnesty to people from any country or ethnicity, religion for whatever reason. It weakens respect for the law and encourages future law breakers."

Despite the outspoken opposition by many in the House, Staunton and his colleagues feel optimistic about the bill's future.

And when the House returns to session next week, he and his team will be there, making the case for immigration reform.

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