As the debate over immigration reform begins in earnest this week after the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing, it is clear we stand on the cusp of the most important few months for the Irish in America in many decades.

At stake is the fate of our undocumented Irish, a backlog of people dating back to the 1990s in some cases who have never legalized their status.

The other critical impact is on future flow to America for the Irish.  We see what has happened to many of our organizations, especially the older ones, as they have lost the vital lifeblood of new emigrants and face tough times.

The exact numbers are hard to ascertain. The official overstay rate is around 30,000 -- i.e., the numbers who have not handed in their departure forms at U.S airports -- but the real number may be considerably higher as many long term illegals are not counted in such numbers.

The third aspect is the renewal of vast numbers of immigrants leaving Ireland. Australia and Britain have become the key states of destination, with Canada next and the U.S. nowhere.

Restoring a future flow of legal immigration is also a very important consideration for the Irish lobby.

How do we go about it?

The battle for immigration reform has come down to four core principles.  Those are: 

1. Create a tough but fair path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States that is contingent upon securing our borders and tracking whether legal immigrants have left the country when required.  (Many Democrats oppose the citizenship being contingent on border security saying that is a never ending process).

2. Reform the legal immigration system to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen
American families. (This is the one favored by big employers, especially Silicon Valley where skilled workers are badly needed).

3. Create an effective employment verification system that will prevent identity theft and end the hiring of future unauthorized workers. (A sop to the hardliners but an incredibly difficult program to police).

4. Establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation’s workforce needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers. (This is the one that will interest the Irish lobby most, allowing, hopefully, for a new look at country caps, possibly redrawing the annual diversity visa program and pushing through the E3 program allowing for 10,000 new Irish a year.)

There will be a Senate Judiciary hearing on February 13, the day after the State of the Union, and further meetings will take place in the months ahead as we await a formal bill. 

That is the roadmap we face, and it is one we need to be deeply conscious of in the months ahead.

It will need all the hard work and dedication of the Irish American organizations in tandem with the Irish government to ensure that the maximum effort is undertaken.

This opportunity will not come along in the near future again, and there has to be a determined consensus that the Irish try and carve out their niche, like every other country will be trying to do on this occasion.

It is not time for faint hearts or weasel words that mean nothing. We have to bring our A game to this debate, a critical one for the future of the community in the U.S.

Let the battle begin.

House Judiciary Committee holds its first meeting this weekGoogle Images