Higgins ‘more optimistic’ about plight of undocumented

President meets Chicago mayor on first engagement of five-day US visit

President Michael D Higgins has described Chicago with its many immigrants from all over the world as the ‘great melting pot city’. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

President Michael D Higgins has described Chicago with its many immigrants from all over the world as the ‘great melting pot city’. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Fri, May 9, 2014, 18:15

President Michael D Higgins said he was “much more optimistic” about a breakthrough in a reform of American immigration laws to help the estimated 50,000 Irish immigrants living illegally in the US after meeting the mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel.

Speaking in Chicago following the first engagement of his five-day trip to the US, Mr Higgins said he was very pleased to hear “very supportive remarks” about the plight of 5,000 “undocumented” Irish in the Chicago area and the likely developments on immigration reform before the end of the year.

Mr Higgins and Mr Emanuel, president Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, also discussed cultural, economic and historical ties between Chicago and Ireland at a 40-minute meeting at City Hall.

The Chicago mayor had the previous day met US homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson with congressman Luis Gutierrez, a champion for immigration reform, and said that Mr Obama would take executive action to overhaul immigration laws if the House of Representatives did not pass a bill.

Mr Higgins said that his discussion with the mayor was “all the richer” for the meetings Mr Emanuel had about the undocumented during his visit to Washington DC yesterday. The president referred to the difficulties that Irish who were living illegally in the US had returning to Ireland.

“As president of Ireland I am obviously concerned for whatever the figure is, be it 50,000 or whatever, in the United States people who have particular difficulties, difficulties that we were able to discuss in a very human way, that affect families and that affect mobility,” said the Irish President speaking to reporters next to the mayor.

Mr Emanuel said immigration reform was about “fixing about a broken system” so that immigrants from Ireland and elsewhere can “beat their path to the most American of American cities and can actually then start to put their roots down and continue to contribute to this great city and this great country”.

Mr Higgins described Chicago with its many immigrants from all over the world as the “great melting pot city”, while the mayor described Chicago as “the most western county of Ireland” and noted that the President was the 11th official Irish Government or State visitor to the city.

“On this rate we will hit our 55 millionth tourist to the city of Chicago one Irish minister at a time,” joked Mr Emanuel, a former Democratic congressman.

The mayor invited the President to lead next year’s St Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago and open a new Irish art exhibition at Chicago’s acclaimed Art Institute, the second largest museum in the US.

Mr Higgins travelled on to Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, where he studied for a master’s degree in sociology in 1967, to receive an honorary degree with former US treasury secretary Paul O’Neill.

He returns to Chicago on tomorrow evening for the remaining three days of his official visit where he will meet members of the city’s Irish community on Sunday. He will attend a breakfast hosted by the American Ireland Fund on Monday and meet Illinois Governor Pat Quinn later that day.

Speaking to reporters alongside the President at City Hall, Mr Emanuel noted how Mr Higgins first visited Chicago in the late 1960s when he studied in Indiana.

“It has slightly changed [SINCE THEN]– a couple of new buildings but you will feel right at home,” said the Mayor.

“It is a long, long time since I travelled by Greyhound Bus to the Midwest in 1966,” said Mr Higgins who joked that there had been “just a few changes” in a city now home to many skyscrapers.