The Department of Foreign Affairs has insisted that addressing the situation facing undocumented Irish emigrants in the United States has been a top priority for successive governments and remains so for this Coalition.
However, it has accepted that the Covid-19 pandemic has limited its scope for influencing policy-makers at the highest level in the US over the past two years.
The defence of its record in this regard follows criticism from the former Fine Gael TD John Deasy and influential Irish-American representative group, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), that the Government had taken its eye off the ball when it came to the interest of Irish citizens resident in the US.
The AOH told the Irish Times this week that there was a need for stronger advocacy in Washington DC on Irish-American Issues and for Irish people living in the US.
The AOH is believed to be of the view that Irish diplomatic strategy in the US focused too much on other matters, including winning a seat on the UN security council.
Mr Deasy, now the head of Government Affairs for the AOH, also said the view in America was that the new management team in Iveagh House needed “to get the department back to basics”.
The department did not directly address the criticisms but responded by defending its record on representing Irish citizens, including undocumented people, in the US.
A spokesman said that immigration issues continued to be raised on an ongoing basis through our engagement at all levels with the US administration and political leaders.
“During his St Patrick’s Day virtual visit last year, the Taoiseach [Micheál Martin] raised the matter directly with president [Joe] Biden.
“Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney also raised immigration issues in meetings on Capitol Hill on his most recent visit to Washington, DC.”
The Department said that there was ongoing engagement to seek more immigration pathways for our citizens “at all levels”. It said the Department was active on Capitol Hill with members of the Senate and the House of Representatives and had also worked to deepen and strengthen bilateral relations with President Biden’s administration.
“Immigration issues, including possible pathways to citizenship, are a priority for president Biden, as demonstrated by his proposed US Citizenship Act of 2021. Ireland will continue ongoing engagement with his Administration as well as with the US Congress, on a bipartisan basis, as they pursue comprehensive immigration reform in the US,” said the spokesman.
The spokesman added that through the Irish Embassy in Washington DC, the Government has continued it efforts to get the US to broaden the existing E3 Visa Bill to include Irish citizens
“If passed, it could allow access of thousands of US visas each year to Irish citizens, providing new opportunities to live and work in the US,” he said.
In the Dáil on Wednesday, the Sinn Féin TD for Meath West Johnny Guirke raised the issues saying the plight of undocumented Irish in the US need to be taken right back up the agenda. He said any Irish person without US papers who lost work during Covid would have had no income over the past two years.
Responding for the Government Minister for State Mary Butler said the issue of undocumented Irish was a priority for the Irish Embassy in Washington DC. However, she accepted that the pandemic had had an impact.
“The scope of high-level meetings at senior political level has been limited because of Covid-19. The return this year of high-level visits will strengthen the ability of the Irish Government to develop strong political relationships [at the highest level],” she said.
“Through our Embassy in Washington DC, as well as our Consulates across the US, the department works closely with Irish groups across the United States.
“The Government continues to provide support and significant annual funding through the Government’s Emigrant Support Programme to the US Coalition of Irish Immigration Centres, which provides support to Irish citizens, in particular to the undocumented Irish who are seeking to regularise their status.”
The spokesman added that a dedicated Covid-19 Response Fund for Irish Communities Abroad was set up last year to help these organisations meet the needs of those who are particularly vulnerable.
“In 2021, over €4.2 million was paid to diaspora organisations in the US for emigrant support and Covid-19 related projects.”