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Families of undocumented Irish at an ILIR rally in Dublin in April 2006

Time to solve immigration mess

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Families of undocumented Irish at an ILIR rally in Dublin in April 2006

Ireland is bananas over President Barack Obama.

 

During inauguration week, the hope, pride and affection for our new president and a rekindled romance with the United States coursed through the country as it came to a standstill to follow every detail of the proceedings and ceremony. You could feel it in the air.

 

The pasts and futures of Ireland and America are intertwined, and on so many different levels.

 

So intertwined that it is interesting to ponder the irony that if today's restrictive anti-Irish immigration laws were in place in 1850, Falmouth Kearney, Obama's great, great great grandfather, would never have left Moneygall for Ohio, and the U.S. would not now have its first Irish-African-American president.

 

But how will the election of Offaly's new favorite son affect the centuries-long issue of Irish-U.S. migration, and the current plight of undocumented Irish in America? It is time once again to renew the effort to solve this puzzle, not just on a "once-off" basis as before, but to create a sustainable and long term solution. Several issues sit out on the horizon in this regard.

 

The first is comprehensive immigration reform. Some believe that with the Democrats controlling Congress the chances of passing comprehensive reform are far better now than they were under the Bush administration, thereby regularizing the immigration status of over 12 million undocumented living in the U.S., including upwards of 50,000 Irish.

 

Others are less sure and believe we ignore at our peril that significant opposition to the last effort, the Kennedy-McCain reform proposal, also came from within the Democratic Party, including powerful senators like Byron Dorgan and Barbara Boxer.

 

Then-Senator Obama supported many of the floor amendments that doomed its ultimate passage. Moreover, with increasing U.S. unemployment and an economy in tatters, there may be little political appetite to legalize an army of undocumented workers to compete with the already unemployed.

 

Another issue to consider is the new J visa program. The recently enacted J program annually allows up to 20,000 Irish college students and recent graduates to gain work experience in the U.S.

 

The visa is for a period of only one year and cannot be renewed. The J visa is widely viewed as too restrictive, unwieldy and of absolutely no use to the Irish undocumented. Although of some temporary benefit to a few, it is not a viable solution to the Irish-U.S. immigration issue, and it is intellectually dishonest to hold it out as such. Then there's the bilateral immigrant visa.

 

The best hope of fixing this problem once and for all would be the successful negotiation of a bilateral treaty visa between Ireland and the U.S., along the lines of the Australian E3 visa that was created in 2005.

 

It is precisely here that the Irish government, through the Department of Foreign Affairs and its embassy in Washington needs to prioritize its efforts. The Australian model creates a dedicated category of 10,500 work visas per annum, with spouses and children not counted against the cap.

 

The visa lasts for two years but is renewable indefinitely. While it may or may not be of direct benefit to the undocumented Irish (rabbits have been pulled out of the hat before!), it does provide a sensible and sustainable path forward.

 

The system of Irish emigration to the U.S. has been broken since 1965. For over 44 years it has been nothing short of a haphazard, sporadic mess that, every now and then, has been temporarily tidied up by once-off fixes such as the Donnelly and Morrison visa programs.

 

As laudable as comprehensive reform might be, it too is just a one-time fix. Even if it comes to pass it is no substitute for a proper and sustainable system of Irish-U.S. migration. Successful negotiation of an Irish E3 visa is the way forward.

 

Let us hope our leaders in Ireland and the U.S. have the conviction and moral courage to push for change, to fix an old, broken system and truly embrace the history and accomplishments of our two countries. To the timid among us, let them be reminded of the words of Robert F. Kennedy, channeling Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw - There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were and ask, why not?

 

Bart Murphy is the chairman of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, and is on the boards of the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers in the U.S. and the American Ireland Fund.

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