History was made at the City Club of Chicago on Monday, April 22 as two rival congressmen, one a conservative Republican and the other a liberal Democrat, shared a stage not once but twice to confirm their commitment to comprehensive immigration reform. The Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform led by Chairman Billy Lawless greeted both legislators and thanked them for their leadership on this issue.
Former Romney running mate and darling of the fiscally conservative tea party movement, Paul Ryan, and his equally cherished champion of immigration reform Democrat Luis Gutierrez showed Chicago that the rancor and division normally associated with Washington politics can indeed be put to bed, if only on one issue, namely, immigration reform.
As the senate moves forward with hearings on their recently released immigration bill the focus has now turned to the House and the state of play between Democrats and Republicans. The senate produced an almost 900 page bill that paves the way for increased border security, an E-verify system of employment verification, a guest worker program and earned citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented workers living in the U.S.
The path to earned citizenship will also affect the 50,000 undocumented Irish who languish in legal limbo with no hope of ever returning home to visit loved ones unless reform passes. The proposed bill will award them legal status in the form of Registered Prospective Immigrant Status or RPI, which will come in the form of a 5 year work and residency permit. The permit will be renewed after the first 5 years and the second card will also have a 5 year term. After a total of 10 years on RPI status the immigrant can then apply for a green card and 3 years later citizenship.
To secure RPI status one must pass a background check, one cannot have 3 or more misdemeanors or felonies or foreign convictions, he or she must pay a fine and also show proficiency in English. In addition one must begin paying taxes the moment they secure RPI status if they are not already doing so. The benefit to many Irish immigrants will be the ability to travel home on RPI status without fear of being denied re entry.
Platitudes aside Monday’s event underscored the determination of politicians on both sides of the aisle to solve this issue and the sight of two beltway foes sharing stories of convivial friendship and shared Catholic values was enough to make a believer out any doubting Thomas.
The national debate on immigration reform continues but there has been a definite shift in its focus and on the chances of getting something passed this year. ‘Elections have consequences’ is an oft heard phrase in politics; the presidential elections in November highlight this principle more than anything as former Vice Presidential contender Paul Ryan -who ran on a ticket that encouraged the ‘self-deportation’ of 11 million undocumented workers - now endorses a path to citizenship for 11 million people. Both parties now recognize that changing demographics and increased minority voter participation will shape future elections and decide political fates.
The House does not yet have a bill but key players on both sides of the aisle are talking and a bill is expected soon. Gutierrez was quoted as saying, “if you have an opportunity to solve a problem, you’re an idiot if you don’t change the manner in which you treat your opposition when your opposition has said ‘you know what? I want to work this out’.”
The makeup of any House bill is not yet known but all indications are that it will be very similar to the Senate proposal. The Senate bill calls for an overhaul of the current system and changes the focus from family reunification to a skill or points-based system. The idea is to encourage immigration of highly skilled workers who will fill millions of open jobs in the hi-tech and engineering sectors, which in turn will fuel the economy. Those with experience or degrees in science and math for example or those from an English speaking country, such as Ireland, will be allotted more points and may be eligible to apply for a guest worker visa. As the current language is written that non-immigrant visa can morph into a green card with eventual citizenship.
The Irish, whose legal avenues for immigration have shrunk dramatically in recent decades, are watching the proposals very closely for glimmers of hope. Congressman Ryan talked movingly about his own Irish roots from County Kilkenny and his great grandfather’s journey across the Atlantic that led him to a farm in Wisconsin where he built his own version of the American dream. Ireland is experiencing massive emigration today with levels not seen since the time of the Famine when Ryan’s forefathers left for the promise of a better tomorrow.
The current senate bill tries to address Irish concerns with a provision, supported strongly by Senators Chuck Schumer (D- NY) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), that allows for future flow of Irish workers to the tune of 10,500 per year. Applicants would have to have a high school diploma or equivalent or a two-year vocational training qualification to be eligible. The visa is renewable every two years and would require a job offer to be made before securing the visa. There is also no limitation to how long the visa program will run.
According to the Wall Street Journal an aide to Mr. Schumer said that the provision would right a 1965 change to immigration law that was supposed to end bias against Latin American, Asian and African immigrants but "inadvertently made it difficult for Irish immigrants to obtain visas, despite their strong cultural ties to the U.S."
Time will tell if a bill passes but if Monday’s back slapping and on stage courtship of two normally implacable political foes is any indication then the Congress may surprise us all by actually passing a bipartisan law this year.
*Breandán Magee is the Executive Director of the Chicago Irish Immigrant Support (CIIS)