US immigration reform requires courage, says Enda Kenny

Taoiseach praises US president Barack Obama for his ‘decisiveness’ on the issue

Enda Kenny and Barack Obama meet  ahead of a  St Patrick’s Day lunch. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Enda Kenny and Barack Obama meet ahead of a St Patrick’s Day lunch. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters


Taoiseach Enda Kenny said US immigration reform can only be achieved with courage and praised Barack Obama’s “decisiveness” on the issue as Mr Obama hailed the contribution of Irish immigrants in the US.

Speaking after their annual St Patrick’s Day meeting in the Oval Office, Mr Obama said he and Mr Kenny shared the view that one of the great strengths of the United States has always been its willingness to welcome new immigrants to its shores.

“That is what has made us unique and special,” said the US president. “Nobody has contributed more to the growth and dynamism of the US economy than our Irish immigrants. That continues to be the case.”

Mr Kenny said in his remarks to reporters after their meeting that the two leaders had discussed visa waivers that would allow illegal Irish immigrants to travel back and forth freely to Ireland and the US.

“I would hope that at the end of the day that political leadership here in Washington, the greatest nation… can actually deal with this particular problem,” Mr Kenny said.

“It can only be dealt with by having courage and leadership.”

The Taoiseach said he hoped Irish people would be allowed to travel back and forth between the US and Ireland while on the “road to legitimacy”.

The Government hoped the “decisiveness of President Obama on this can bear fruit”, he said.

The Republican Party has blocked wider immigration reform that would put the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the US on a path to citizenship.

In the absence of an agreement with his political opponents, the president issued executive orders last year to shield up to five million illegal immigrants from deportation, including thousands of Irish.

Move blocked

The move was blocked after Republicans brought a court challenge claiming Mr Obama had exceeded his lawful authority.

Speaking after a meeting that lasted about 30 minutes, the president noted the Irish economic recovery, saying Ireland was “on the move after a very challenging financial crisis and economic recession”.

There were “terrific opportunities” for Ireland and the US to collaborate in creating jobs in both countries, he said.

The two men spoke about the proposed EU-US trade deal and “how we could continue the negotiations on both those fronts”.

On Northern Ireland, the president said there was “still more work to do” but he praised the Taoiseach’s work and the collaboration with the US “in encouraging both parties to arrive at peaceful resolutions that can lead to more prosperity and growth in Northern Ireland”.

Mr Kenny described his meeting with Mr Obama as constructive and conclusive.

The two men also discussed the threat of foreign fighters returning to Ireland, Europe and the US from the Middle East.

Mr Obama said they talked about “the importance of stemming the flow of foreign fighters” and “increasing deepening co-operation in counter-terrorism and countering foreign fighters flows.

Referring to the domestic US matters, the president said he was “hoping for a little of the Irish” in finding agreement with Republicans on agreeing a budget that would invest in education, infrastructure, research and defence, and that would help middle-class families.

‘Four-leaf clover’

“I will keep my four-leaf clover in my pocket,” he said on his hopes of reaching agreement on budget issues with Republican leaders, the Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

Mr Obama described his “annual affair” meeting the Taoiseach as “always one of my favourites”.

“It allows me to trot out my Irish heritage and brings back incredibly fond memories of my visits to Ireland,” he said. “It allows us to reaffirm the incredible friendship and family ties between our two countries.”

Northern Ireland

Speaking to reporters outside the West Wing afterwards, Mr Kenny said Mr Obama understands “little obstacles” stand in the way of resolving the impasse over welfare reform in Northern Ireland.

Mr Kenny called on Northern leaders to sit down together and sort out their differences, adding that his Government stood ready to help the Northern parties that had signed up to the Stormont House Agreement.

Asked after his meeting with Mr Obama what the president had said about Northern Ireland, Mr Kenny said: “He expressed his understanding that there’s a bit of an obstacle here, but I explained to him that I expect this can be dealt with.”

Mr Kenny said the Stormont House Agreement was “signed and acceptable” before Christmas.

“It’s a case now for the Executive politicians in Northern Ireland and the leadership to sit down now and sort out whatever little obstacles are there and we will help in that regard,” he said.

“Obviously I know that meetings have been arranged for members of Sinn Féin who were, you know, not having a meeting yesterday, but they are now having a meeting today.”

Mr Kenny was referring to Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams’s meeting with US State Department officials in Washington, which followed confusion around whether the department had refused to host him.

The Taoiseach thanked former US Senator Gary Hart for his work as a US envoy to the North.

Speaking after the Oval Office meeting, the Taoiseach said it was disappointing that Mr Obama’s executive action on immigration reform had stalled.

Difficulties faced

He said US ambassador to Ireland Kevin O’Malley had recently briefed Mr Obama on the difficulties faced by so-called Irish illegals.

“The process following his own executive action as president has now stalled and that’s a disappointment,” Mr Kenny said.

“Our real problem here in the interim period- between whatever circumstances - the right to travel over and back is of critical importance for Irish immigrants,” he said.

“And also there’s an issue about the waiver scheme and the way it applies. That’s an issue that obviously should be part of the eventual outcome.”

Mr Kenny said a resolution would be “good for America and good for Ireland”.

Mr Kenny travelled to the US Capitol for the Speaker’s St Patrick’s Day lunch which is being attended by Mr Obama.

Mr Kenny will present Mr Obama with a bowl of shamrock at the traditional St Patrick’s Day reception in the White House later on St Patrick’s day.