Coming out of the shadows
During the past decade, United States lawmakers have made five separate attempts to reform their country’s immigration system. Each has ended in failure, condemning an estimated 11 million people, including thousands of Irish citizens, to a shadowy existence on the edge of legality. This week, a group of Republican and Democratic senators launched the latest effort at comprehensive immigration reform and the following day, President Barack Obama said that if the initiative did not succeed, he would draw up legislation himself and send it to Congress. Undocumented immigrants and their champions have reacted with caution but there are signs that this reform effort may have a better chance of success than any of its recent predecessors.
Republican senator John McCain, a veteran campaigner for reform, this week identified with admirable bluntness the motivation driving his party to embrace change: “Elections.” Mr Obama had a three to one advantage last November among Latinos, many of whom feel unwelcome in a Republican Party that has adopted harsh rhetoric on immigration. Central to the success of the new initiative will be Florida senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who owes his swift rise through the Republican ranks to the support of the conservative Tea Party movement. Mr Rubio, who is often tipped as a presidential candidate for 2016, has concluded that his party cannot win the White House until it improves its standing among Hispanics, the fastest-growing major ethnic group in the US. He is backing a path to citizenship for undocumented citizens who register with the authorities and pay their taxes but insists that the reform should be conditional on better border security and tougher measures to target employers who hire the undocumented.
Mr Obama, who in 2008 promised to make immigration reform a priority during his first term as president, has finally put it towards the top of the agenda in his second. The rise in Hispanic influence within the labour movement will make it easier for Democrats, some of whom have argued that allowing the undocumented to become citizens will depress wages, to support change. The president, who has recently been persuaded of the merits of marriage equality for gays and lesbians, wants those in same-sex relationships to have equal rights where immigration is concerned too.
Irish citizens account for only a small proportion of the total number of undocumented immigrants in the US but campaigners on their behalf, supported by Irish diplomatic efforts, have been an important part of the coalition backing reform. Irish-Americans are influential within both US political parties and the Government can play a significant role in encouraging Ireland’s many friends on Capitol Hill to support this long-overdue change.