New Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is treating the plight of the Irish undocumented in the U.S. with such importance that he’s appointed a special envoy tasked with implementing new ways to deal with the issue.
Waterford TD John Deasy, 49, a U.S. college graduate with several years of experience working on Capitol Hill after completing his degree, will lead a renewed effort by the Irish government to seek relief for the undocumented as the first ever envoy. Deasy has been a member of the Dail representing his native Waterford since 2002.
During an interview with the Irish Voice on Monday Deasy, who will make his first trip to Washington, D.C. as envoy in the next couple of weeks, says a “new approach” is needed with regards to the undocumented as strategies used in the past haven’t worked. He stressed that his first trip to Washington will involve “a lot of listening and outreach” with those who are working on immigration reform, particularly members of the Embassy of Ireland and the various Irish consular offices throughout the U.S.
“We are in a different place now,” Deasy said about the current state of U.S. immigration priorities. “We have gone to talking about immigration reform to immigration enforcement, and the deporting of individuals on a far larger scale than we’ve ever seen. I know that’s a terrifying turn of events. This is a different environment than what we’ve ever dealt with before.”
Deasy says his first priority is the undocumented. “We have to start there,” he said.
Past lobbying efforts to secure an Irish version of the Australian E-3 work visa, which gives natives of Australia with advanced skills work visas for an unlimited number of years, have been too limiting, Deasy says, pointing out that the E-3 visa would not be of use to the undocumented and would limit many Irish citizens from working in the U.S. because of its higher educational requirements.
“To be honest, when the E-3 visa was first floated I wasn’t that comfortable with the idea on a personal level because I thought it excluded too many people. I thought it was a political way out of a problem that affected a lot of people, far more than those who would fit into the E-3 visa category,” Deasy said.
“I thought that it was an attempt to replicate what fit for the Australians, but which really wasn’t a good fit for us. So I’m not going to immediately gravitate over to the E-3 visa without looking at the entire landscape to see what might be possible.”
Deasy offered that he has “a couple of ideas” in mind, but wants to get input from those on the ground here before offering a specific plan of action.
He spent years as a legislative staffer on Capitol Hill after his graduation from Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania in 1990 and worked on immigration issues. At the time he sensed a negative shift in Ireland’s political influence. He sees the same problem today, he says.
“When I left the Hill 20 years ago I had concern which I registered at the time that we were losing influence. I felt that we were trading on past relationships and the power of Irish America that wasn’t there anymore. I think a different approach is needed, and I’ve felt that way for some time.”
During his time in Washington, Deasy worked for two Republicans, then Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania, and Congressman Ronald K. Machtley. He has maintained his network of U.S. political contacts, and says that many Republicans are deeply unhappy with how the issue of immigration is being handled under the Trump administration.
“I very strongly believe that, and it is something I will be paying great attention to and working on,” Deasy said.
The estimated 50,000 Irish undocumented have had their hopes raised before, only to be disappointed at the lack of progress. Deasy says he’s aware of this and doesn’t want to raise expectations.
“I would be wary of raising anyone’s hopes. I know that’s what’s happened in the past,” he said.
“But what I do believe and what I want to offer is a new way of thinking. As a country we’ve relied too much on the traditional relationships to solve problems. I think it’s clear now that everyone has to wise up to the fact that with this administration, we are just one of many. We are no longer being singled out as a special case.
“At this point, it’s about providing direction and coming up with a new strategy to deal with this problem.”
Varadkar, Deasy added, is totally supportive of a fresh look at how to assist the undocumented.
“We had discussions about the undocumented and it’s been in the pipeline for some time,” Deasy said about his new envoy role. “When I broached the issue with the taoiseach and put it to him that particularly now it needed some extra attention, he agreed immediately.”
Deasy plans on traveling to the major Irish U.S. cities in the near future to meet with the undocumented and the immigration groups offering support.
The envoy position is not one that will bring extra pay to Deasy, but his travel expenses will be covered. “I am delighted that he has agreed to take on this role and I am sure that he will make an important contribution to our national efforts on this issue,” Varadkar said in a statement last week.
Here's a recent CNN report on the Irish undocumented in America: