Making his first visit to the U.S. as president of Ireland this week, Michael D. Higgins signaled his strong support for the Irish undocumented and his hope that Congress will eventually pass a new E-3 visa program which would allow thousands of Irish workers to live and work here legally.
Higgins, accompanied by his wife Sabina, arrived in New York on Monday afternoon for the start of a six-day trip that saw him undertake several community, cultural and business engagements.
Several hundred members of the Irish American community attended a reception at the Irish Consulate in New York on Monday evening for the first stop on Higgins’s American tour. He applauded the strong ties that bind Ireland and the U.S., and thanked those working on behalf of the undocumented Irish.
“As I reflect on the greatness of this city and particularly on the enormous contribution made towards its success and vibrancy by successive generations of emigrants from Ireland and their descendants, I am mindful that for some the experience of coming here has proved challenging and at times daunting,” Higgins said during his nearly 20-minute speech.
“I am grateful to all those both here in the New York area as well as others elsewhere in the U.S. for the assistance which they have provided over the years to Irish people who have found themselves in such difficulties.”
The president added that he is keenly aware of the problems facing undocumented residents of the U.S.
“I am also particularly conscious of those for whom the future has remained uncertain due to their immigration status. I want to express my thanks to elected representatives at national and local levels here in the U.S. who are continuing to work towards political outcomes which will help alleviate the problems arising for Irish people in that category,” he said.
“I hope that these efforts will meet with success, and I also wish to acknowledge those in the U.S. political system and throughout Irish America who are helping the Irish government in respect of other initiatives such as in the area of E-3 visas which would assure future flows of people between our two countries.”
Higgins noted the resilience of the Irish in the face of a crippling recession, and the anger they feel at the betrayal of “institutions and individuals” who steered the country from prosperity to despair.
“People in Ireland are hurting from the recession.
They are dismayed that the transient, artificially-based, property-based economic bubble, itself within a global economic recession based on speculation, has turned into ashes,” he said.
“Yet, as our history shows, and as the history of the Irish in America attests, we are a strong and resilient people, with a great sense of community and creativity. Far from being defeated by circumstances, the Irish people are, for the most part, moving on, getting stuck into what they can do and are good at, and not allowing themselves to sink into any disabling cynicism or fatalism.”
Among those in attendance at the reception were Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and a vast number of local community leaders. After his speech Higgins and his wife stood on a receiving line to meet all of the guests.
On Tuesday, Higgins attended a breakfast with members of the Irish professional network Irish Network New York, where he sympathized with those Irish forced to leave their homeland because of the depressed economy.
“It is heartbreaking that Ireland and the Irish people are living again with the enormous social and economic challenges posed by unemployment and emigration. Indeed, some of you know better than anybody the pain caused to young people and their families when the economic circumstances mean that opportunities are simply not available at home and you are compelled to make the important and life-changing decision to pursue a life abroad,” Higgins told the guests at Bank of New York Mellon on Wall Street.
The president expressed his desire that many Irish will eventually feel the time is right for them to return to Ireland, and that the country will provide many reasons for them to do so.
“It is equally my wish that, when economic circumstances in Ireland create the necessary employment opportunities, that you might consider returning to your homeland of birth, bringing with you your individual talent and your acquired skills and perspectives,” he said.
“While I am proud of what you are all doing here in the United States and how you are representing Ireland, I also look forward to the day when some, if not many of you, will return home to help in the task of transforming our republic.”
Also on Tuesday, Higgins visited the September 11 Memorial and the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City, and met with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That evening, he delivered the annual Thomas Flanagan Memorial Lecture at the American Irish Historical Society.
Other events on his itinerary included meetings with the various Irish immigrant community centers in New York, and a courtesy call to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
On Thursday night Higgins was the guest of honor at the annual American Ireland Fund dinner at Lincoln Center, with an expected attendance of 1,400.
Higgins has a particular love of Irish culture, and was named Ireland’s first ever minister for the arts in 1993. His itinerary in New York also included attendance at a promotional event for Irish film, and a seminar with academics and students at New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House.
On Friday Higgins will travel to Boston for a number of events, including an economic promotion luncheon and a lecture on the Famine at Faneuil Hall. He will also attend a community reception hosted by the Boston Irish Consulate and visit the Kennedy Library before departing for Ireland on Saturday evening.