Taoiseach highlights need for immigration reform at talks with senior Capitol Hill figures

Kenny on US visit stresses importance of legislation overhaul

President Barack Obama, Taoiseach  Enda Kenny and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio leave a Friends of Ireland lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington yesterday. Photograph: Charles Dharapak/AP

President Barack Obama, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio leave a Friends of Ireland lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington yesterday. Photograph: Charles Dharapak/AP

Wed, Mar 20, 2013, 06:00

Senior political figures on Capitol Hill were told by the Taoiseach that their efforts to overhaul immigration legislation are important to thousands of families of immigrants and descendants of immigrants.

Speaking at the traditional St Patrick’s Day lunch at the US Congress, Mr Kenny said the efforts of senators and congressman were “being followed by the Irish across America and indeed at home”.

“It’s of interest and import not only to families of current immigrants but to the descendants of those immigrants who helped build and transform America economically, politically, socially,” he said in a speech distributed to the media. “To Congress who are engaged in such important work, we wish you success. Because, after all, St Patrick, in whose honour we gather here today, was himself an immigrant.”

The US president has made immigration reform one of the key priorities of his second-term agenda for new legislation, proposing that the 11 million illegal immigrants be put on a path to citizenship. A bipartisan group of senators has proposed their own proposals which could help the 50,000 illegal Irish immigrants. Mr Kenny was speaking at a private lunch on Capitol Hill, where he sat between US president Barack Obama and the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner. The lunch is one of the few public events for which the president travels to Capitol Hill.

The small gathering was entertained by Irish tenor Anthony Kearns, who received a standing ovation from the audience. Other guests present at the luncheon included Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, the Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and members of Congress, including Republican Peter King and Democrat Joe Kennedy III. Mr Kenny also spoke about the bonds between Ireland and the United States and the efforts by the Irish Government to encourage Irish Americans and others to return to Ireland for “the Gathering”, a marketing drive to boost the tourism industry in Ireland.

“No country, no people, have the ties that we share. Later this year we’ll be gathering to commemorate the loyalty of President Kennedy as we mark the 50th anniversary of his homecoming. In his words on his visit to Ireland that fateful year, 1963, ‘we are divided by distance . . . united by history’,” said Mr Kenny. “In the Gathering 2013 we invite our Irish Americans and friends to experience this shared history, and all that is unique and precious about Ireland.”

Mr Kenny also spoke about the Government’s efforts for economic recovery.

“Our economy is stable and growing, thanks in no small part to the pragmatism, patience, sacrifice and spirit of the Irish people,” he said.

The Taoiseach told the US president and members of Congress that Ireland holds the EU presidency at “an auspicious time” and that the proposed EU-US trade agreement will “impact powerfully on exports, investment and jobs” on both sides of the Atlantic. Quoting an Irish phrase, the Taoiseach added: “A good start is half the work.”

Mr Kenny thanked members of Congress for their support of the peace process in Northern Ireland but said that challenges remained. “Unfortunately, recent months have seen worrying trends there – violent protests over flags, increased dissident activity, political criticism of the police, judiciary and Parades Commission.”