"THE concept of an amnesty, wiping the sheet clean, is just not on." "They are talking from a position of sitting in the bar, and talking nonsense."With these comments made while standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. on St. Patrick's afternoon, and with all the subtlety of a head-butt, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern turned his government's back on supporting recent proposals put forward by the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR) for a U.S.-Ireland bilateral visa program. This proposal would deal with the crisis of the undocumented Irish and finally provide a permanent and sensible pathway to Irish-U.S. migration going forward. No less than two Aherns, Bertie the taoiseach and Dermot, the minister for foreign affairs, had previously made public and private commitments to support the proposal and push for its implementation in Washington. However, it had become increasingly clear over the last six months that while a significant number of influential U.S. elected leaders were interested in pursuing discussions, for unexplained reasons our own team were not turning up for the match. Excuses were made, but no plausible rationale offered.Labeling committed Irish immigrant advocates as misguided and uninformed bar-stool dreamers and the bilateral visa proposal an "amnesty," Ahern set off a flurry of criticism over the Irish government's refusal to push for a long-term and viable solution to the issue. Reports and opinion pieces in the Irish and Irish American media bear headlines such as "A Kick in The teeth for the Irish in America," "Ahern in Bar-Room Row Over U.S. Illegals", "Pack Your Bags" and "The St. Patrick's Day Insult." Talk about washing your linens in public! Bertie, what were you and your senior advisors thinking? We may never know the answer, and it leaves many more unanswered questions regarding the Irish government's real attitude and commitment to the future of its tens of thousands of undocumented men, women and children in the U.S. It would be too easy to simply hurl back insults to the taoiseach and his senior advisers from the Department of Foreign Affairs for this grossly unwarranted and misleading criticism. And perhaps that's what Ahern's comments were designed to do -- to shift the debate away from working on a solution, to trivialize the advocates, to personalize the debate. For make no mistake about it, in all their uncouthness and insensitivity, Ahern's comments were carefully planned and choreographed to cause damage. Having navigated the choppy waters of the Northern Ireland peace process for the last 20 years, these guys know how to spin an issue and shift a debate better than most. By tarring the proposed bilateral visa solution as an "amnesty," Ahern and his advisers want to knock it on its head. They know well that "amnesty" is the atomic bomb of U.S. immigration politics. It is the language of Tancredo and Dobbs. It plays to people's fears and the lowest common denominator in the immigration reform debate. And it's unfair and untrue. We sadly know too well the U.S. is not ready for broad, sweeping, comprehensive immigration reform. The only significant U.S. immigration reform in the last 45 years has come about on a country by country and regional basis - El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Russia, Israel and South East Asia. Australia, Chile and Singapore now have long-term bilateral visa systems put in place with the U.S., each one a little bit different and tailored to country specific needs. Given Ireland's much vaunted relationship with the U.S. on a number of fronts, many experienced hands, including former Congressman Bruce Morrison, author of the Morrison visa program which granted 48,000 green cards to the Irish in the 1990s, feel that Ireland would be pushing "an open door" in seeking such an arrangement. It might not be perfect, it might need some finessing, but isn't that what Bertie does best? We've long heard the pious platitudes and sound-bytes of Ireland "cherishing our diaspora." But those of us with memories longer than an Irish election cycle also recall the tepid reception and lack of interest previous Irish governments had in the Morrison and Donnelly proposals 20 years ago. Without the push of the Irish Immigration Reform Movement and its allies, there are many now successful Irish men and women in America who would have been otherwise left twisting in the wind. Oh, how history repeats itself! Let's not confuse the issue. To give credit where its due, the Irish government has been proactive and very generous in recent years in funding U.S.-based Irish immigrant social service agencies. But that generosity does not fix the long term political and social problems facing our undocumented in the U.S. It is at best, treating some of the symptoms and not the core illness.Without bold, ambitious commitment and action on the part of the Irish government, the undocumented issue will keep getting bigger and bigger. Thirty-thousand to 50,000 people with roots in their local communities across the country, many now with U.S. born, school going children, are not going back to Ireland in the near or long term. And to suggest otherwise is a political cop-out. A more famous and perhaps wiser and wilier Irish politician, Edmund Burke, once said that "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Sorry, Bertie. I'm with Burke on this one. (Bart Murphy serves on the board of directors of the San Francisco Irish Immigration and Pastoral Center, is past president and a member of the board of the National Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers and serves on the advisory board of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform.)
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