The Tánaiste and Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore arrived in Washington D.C. on Thursday July 11th, the day after House Republicans emerged from a closed-door meeting to determine their response to the passage of S744, the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate two weeks ago. 

The bill passed by a comfortable 68 to 32 majority after the addition of the Hoeven-Corker amendment, which among other things increases spending and enforcement on the border, a move seen as crucial in securing the 14 Republican votes garnered by the bill.  The focus now lies squarely on the House of Representatives where members are still scrambling to respond to the Senate proposal.

Unlike the Senate the House is controlled by Republicans who command a 224 member majority in the 435 member chamber and any would-be bill must not only secure 218 votes to pass but must also jump over a Republican internal hurdle known as the Hastert Rule.  While not constitutionally mandated the Republican Party abides by its own rule that dictates that no bill will even be brought to the floor for a vote if ‘a majority of the majority’ does not support it.  In other words Speaker Boehner will kill any bill if it does not have the support of the Republicans as a whole.  In this context all eyes are on Republicans as they grapple among their own rank and file with how to respond to the Senate’s sweeping immigration bill. 

As yet there has been no clear or demonstrable strategy outlined by Republicans, except to say that they firmly reject the proposal that has come out of the Senate and that they plan to produce their own bill or bills.  Nothing operates in a vacuum and immigration reform is being played out in the context of Republican internal politics.  Despite a strong coalition of Bibles, Badges and Business (churches, law enforcement and chambers of commerce) calling for immigration reform some Republicans are arguing that it is just not an issue for constituents in their home districts and as such they do not see the need to rush to a vote

Even this has its context when one examines the gerrymandered electoral boundaries of the 435 Congressional Districts.  Of those 435 seats only 28 are seen as a toss-up between Republicans and Democrats; in other words lines have been drawn so well on the map that most Republicans are in safe districts and worry more about a right wing contender from their own party in a primary run off than they do a Democratic opponent at a general election.  Those in the Tea Party right wing of the Republican Party are loathe to any mention of immigration reform, which they see as amnesty for people who broke the law by coming here illegally.

However the party leadership knows only too well that their national aspirations and chances of retaking the White House depend on passing immigration reform and appealing more to the growing Hispanic electorate.  ‘Elections have consequences’ is an oft heard phrase since the November presidential election, which swept President Obama to a second term on the backs of a growing Latino electorate.  Latinos jumped from 5 to 11% of the voting public and fell 70 to 30 in favor of Obama.  Republicans were widely viewed as being anti-immigrant in that election with their calls for the self-deportation o f the 11 million undocumented.

Given the nature of the electoral college system that elects a new president and understanding that most elections are decided by key swing states (where Latinos are a growing voting block) and not the popular national vote, you can see why Republicans are concerned.  The big question then is whether the Party responds to local politics or plays a bigger game.

Amid this cliffhanger the Tánasite travelled to Washington to meet with leaders in the Republican Party notably Congressman Paul Ryan, Peter King, Bob Goodlatte (Chairman of the Judiciary Committee), Kevin McCarthy, and Senator John McCain.  He also met with Speaker Boehner’s Chief of Staff.  He was in town to stress the importance of immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented and the Irish E3 Visa. 

He took time to meet Billy Lawless Chairman of the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform as well as Dan Dennehy from the AOH, Celine Kennelly from the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform and Republican strategist Manus Cooney.

Another stop was made to long time friend to the Irish and lion of the Senate Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) who spearheaded the Irish E3 along with Senator Schumer (D-NY).  It is safe to say that much work needs to be done to educate the House Republicans that this is not just a Latino issue but signs are there that they are ready to move on legislation.

As those meetings took place in DC the leadership of the Republican Party in Illinois met in Chicago with Congressman Gutierrez (D-IL), a long time proponent of immigration reform and author of his own immigration House bill, yet to be released.  Minority Leader Tom Cross (R) Senator Christine Radogno (R) and potential gubernatorial candidate Representative Kirk Dillard listened as Cyril Regan of Chicago Irish Immigrant Support argued that immigration reform affects many different communities including the Irish.  Dillard, himself from a district that is home to many Polish immigrants, acknowledged the need to educate Republicans on the issue and posited that Republican ‘yes’ votes in the House were ‘gettable’.

Pundits agree that the House will be a tougher fight than the Senate to secure a bill and Republicans may insist on passing several piecemeal pieces of legislation that deal with border security and the undocumented rather than a sweeping comprehensive bill but momentum is certainly on the side of pro reform advocates.  Unlike the last attempt to pass the Kennedy Mc Cain immigration bill of 2006, immigration reform boasts a much broader coalition of supporters and critically it has the support of most of the Republican leadership with their eye on the White House in 2016.  The upcoming Congressional mid terms in 2014 will also have a role to play in rushing this through the legislative process by the Fall, as no one on either side of the aisle wants such a divisive and politically hot potato to mar the elections. 

The Irish will have their part to play in how this pans out come September after the Congress returns from its month long August summer recess. Irish groups are already mobilizing across the country in their home districts to educate Republicans on the issue and bring to light the fact that 50,000 Irish undocumented workers are affected. Time will tell if that gift of the gab for which we are famous can get the message across.

*Breandán G. Magee is the Executive Director Chicago Irish Immigrant Support