After many years of frustration over the lack of political action on comprehensive immigration reform, Irish groups are cautiously optimistic that Congress is finally ready to move on a bill that could legalize the estimated tens of thousands of undocumented Irish in the United States, and provide greater options for access in the future.
During a speech in Las Vegas on Tuesday, President Obama gave his seal of approval to a broad reform package outlined by a bipartisan group of eight senators on Monday. He said that if Congress did not act in a timely fashion, “I will send up a bill with my proposals and insist that they vote on it right away.”
The President also mentioned the Irish in his remarks, which urged Americans to remember their immigrant history.
“If you’re Irish you left behind a land of famine,” Obama said, adding that early immigrants had to endure racism and other adverse conditions but were determined to persevere.
On Monday eight senators, including Republican rising star Marco Rubio of Florida, put forward a plan to offer a path to citizenship to millions of undocumented that would be tied to verifiable border security measures. The plan also calls for tougher sanctions on employers who hire undocumented immigrants, and more efficient tracking of the exit status of those who enter the country.
Irish groups expressed satisfaction that the contentious immigration issue is once again on the political radar, and vowed to push for a long-term solution that would ensure future legal access for the Irish.
“We are pleased that the Senate has once again taken up the issue and that a path to legalization exists for all undocumented,” said Ciaran Staunton, president of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR).
“But we have to make sure that we have a future flow of visas for the Irish, who were badly disadvantaged by the 1965 Immigration Act. If we don’t do that, then we’ll have future generations of Irish here who will be undocumented, and that’s a fact.”
Staunton pointed out that during the last couple of years, ILIR has met with seven of the eight senators who put forward the new proposals on Monday, except for Rubio.
“We explained our position to them, and that’s something we will keep doing in the following weeks and months,” Staunton said.
Siobhan Dennehy, executive director of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in Queens, said that the center has received calls from people wondering how the proposed legislation might affect their futures in the U.S.
“People are excited about what they are hearing, but we don’t have all the answers right now. We’re just distilling information like everyone else,” she said.
Dennehy expressed hope that politicians on both sides of the divide will come together.
“Senator [Charles] Schumer was at the United Irish Counties dinner on Friday night, and he was definitely more excited than we’ve seen that something good will happen,” she said. “So we have to keep hoping.”
The Senate proposal on Monday was short on specifics – i.e., a cutoff U.S. arrival date for undocumented to take advantage of the legalization path – but legislators and the White House agree that those eligible will have to pass a background check, pay taxes and be processed after those who are already waiting for legal status.
President Obama has made a reform package a centerpiece of his second term agenda, and a large segment of the Republican Party is keen to mend fences with the Hispanic community that overwhelmingly voted for Obama in both presidential elections, not to mention candidates in other political races.
Though the stars seem to be aligning to pass a comprehensive immigration bill, a final deal is far from done. The House of Representatives contains a vast number of conservative Republicans adamantly opposed to immigration reform, though reports emerged on Tuesday that a group of six bipartisan members are working on a bill of their own to introduce in the next two weeks.
“We’ve been here before with the Kennedy-McCain bill,” Staunton said, referring to the 2007 effort that failed to pass the Senate, even though it had bipartisan support and President George W. Bush backing it.
“We’re optimistic this time because President Obama is so strongly in support, but there’s a long way to go.”
Here's President Barack Obama's speech from Nevada, on Tuesday: