The battle for us immigration reform
Immigration reform has reached a critical phase with the lower house considering new legislation after the Senate passed a bill last month but many Republicans are wary
March for Jobs in Washington DC on July 15th, rallying against the Senate’s immigration legislation. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Republican senator Paul Ryan who is trying to rally support for immigration reform. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Demonstration in Chicago, in June, calling for immigration reform. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
“In remote parts of America, an industrious youth may follow any occupation without being looked down upon or sustain loss of character, and he may rationally expect to raise himself in the world by his labour,” the sign reads. “In America, a man’s success must altogether rest with himself.”
Ryan’s Irish ancestors may have read the sign when they left Co Kilkenny for a new life in the US in 1851 in the wave of Irish people fleeing the Great Famine.
The Republican from Wisconsin has produced the sign during discussions about immigration reform, a hot political topic on Capitol Hill. The sign describes “the Irish dream and what many families came to America for”, he says.
“I believe in immigration. I believe in the melting pot. I believe in the American ideal and my citing of that sign is my own personal relationship to it, from my own family’s background: that is what makes our country great and strong,” he says.
Many of the 50,000 Irish immigrants estimated to be living illegally in the US have, contrary to what the sign says, been unable to rise fully in the country by their labour.
Many have worked hard, established careers and set up businesses and, in a perverse quirk of law, even pay US taxes and social security but remain “undocumented” within the country’s immigration system.
Congressman Richard Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts, says that undocumented Irish regularly approach him in private to plead their case, saying they cannot return to Ireland for important family occasions because they run the risk of not getting back into the US, their home for many years.
“When somebody says to me, ‘Congressman, could I have a word?’ I know where it is going.”
He recently met a successful Irish businesswoman who missed her mother’s funeral. “It is wrenching. Just think about going to bed every night and not knowing whether you are going to end up in an airplane in two days, handcuffed and on your way back to Ireland,” says Neal, whose Irish-speaking great aunt helped new immigrants at the courthouse.
Fear for American jobs
Immigration reform, a priority for President Barack Obama, has entered a critical phase as the Republican-led House of Representatives debates the issue. Ryan, Mitt Romney’s Republican running mate in last year’s presidential election, has emerged as a champion for immigration reform within his party in the House. The US government’s lower house is considering new legislation after the Senate passed a cross-party comprehensive immigration bill in a 68 to 32 vote.
Ryan sees himself as a “bridge-builder” who can rally support among conservative Republicans in Congress. Many of them represent older, white voters, who fear for American jobs and are anxious about the changing colour and demographic of the American population from further waves of illegal immigrants and the strain they may put on government finances.
Ryan’s conservative credentials and ongoing war on government spending makes him popular among conservatives in the House-Republican caucus and within the far-right Tea Party.
“I am just trying to bring our different factions together to come up with workable legislation. I believe there is consensus within our party on how best to solve our immigration problems,” he says.
The Senate’s so-called Gang of Eight bill – named after the four Democrat and four Republican senators who drafted it – sets out a 13-year pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the US.