John Sweeny, Irish-American leader of labor union A.F.L-C.I.O

In a move that will be welcomed by the 50,000 undocumented Irish in the U.S., John Sweeney, the Irish-American leader of the labor union A.F.L.-C.I.O, has agreed to work together on immigration reform with Joe T. Hansen, the leader of rival union, Change to Win.

The coming together of these two powerful unions is a significant boast to President Obama’s drive for immigration reform.

In 2007, the last time immigration reform was seriously considered, the two unions disagreed over how best to approach this politically emotive issue. This latest move means that the debate over immigration reform, which had died down during last year’s election, will gather momentum.

Last week, President Obama signaled his eagerness to re-start the debate. Cecilia Muñoz, deputy assistant to the president and director of intergovernmental affairs in the White House, said that the President would begin examining ways in which undocumented workers could gain a path to citizenship. 

What the President wants, Muñoz said, is a “policy reform that controls immigration and makes it an orderly system.” 

John Sweeney, himself the son of Irish immigrants, told the New York Times: “The labor movement will work together to make sure that the White House as well as Congress understand that we speak about immigration reform with one voice.” 

Officials from both unions told that paper that they favored endorsing the status of undocumented workers already in the U.S., but opposed any new large new program for employers to bring in temporary immigrant workers. 

The unions have worked together in the past on this issue – however, in 2007, they differed when the A.F.L.-C.I.O. did not support reforms proposed by the Bush administration, as these included measures that would have expanded the guest-worker program, which the union opposed.

 Now the two unions are calling for a national commission to manage immigration, which would allocate the number of foreign workers allowed enter the U.S. each year on the basis of labor market demand. This would mean, union officials argue, that in a time of high unemployment, immigration would be reduced. 

Joe Hansen told the New York Times that this new agreement between the two unions would form the “building block to go forward to get immigration reform up on the agenda in Congress” sometime this year. 

Irish community leaders active in immigration reform have welcomed the re-ignition of this debate.

Bart Murphy, the chairman of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, told IrishCentral: “The Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR) welcomes the new Obama Administration initiative. It’s the start of a new debate. And we at the ILIR will be standing shoulder to shoulder with the various other immigration organizations, pushing for reform, as we have been in the past.” 

Sheila Glesson, the executive director of Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers, said:  “I’ve been working in this area for a long time, so I am cautiously optimistic. But we have to have hope.” 

John Sweeney, who is 74, is one of the most prominent Irish-Americans of his generation. The president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O since 1995, his father was a bus driver in the Bronx, and his mother a domestic worker. He was Irish America magazine’s Irish American of the year in 2004, and he supported Barack Obama in his bid for the presidency.