Analysis: Immigration reform to the fore for Taoiseach in US
Kenny floats idea of visa waivers to remedy travel difficulties for US-based illegal Irish
Enda Kenny: “There’s an issue about the waiver scheme and the way it applies.” Photograph: Bloomberg
The Taoiseach, at the end of his remarks in the Oval Office next to Barack Obama, noted that it was “unique for a country as small as Ireland to have this reach right to the centre of influence”.
On the subject of immigration reform – a topic of “great interest” to the Taoiseach, as Obama put it – Enda Kenny on his annual St Patrick’s Day visit to Washington had to work his influence at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, in the White House and in Congress.
Obama’s executive actions bypassing Congress last year to protect millions of illegal migrants from deportation, have been frozen by the US courts. His ambitions for a broad reform of immigration law have been blocked by Republicans. Kenny is caught between two conflicting forces.
At the St Patrick’s Day breakfast in the residence of vice president Joe Biden, Kenny said the issue “may well be somewhat intractable”.
He recalled a prominent Irish-American who in his office in Notre Dame used to look out at the American university’s dome and a statue of the Virgin Mary for inspiration. “When I get these intractable problems, I look out that window. ‘This one is for you, baby’,” said the Taoiseach, repeating the Irish-American’s words.
“[This] is an issue that I know you can deal with,” he told mostly Democratic senators at the Biden residence.
Finding consensus in Washington’s political gridlock is a challenge. Kenny has certainly softened his cough since his St Patrick’s Day visit last year. Much has changed since then, with the Republicans winning control of Congress by taking a majority in the Senate in last year’s midterm elections.
This puts John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell in the driving seat. Kenny’s people did well to get some face time with them after he attended the Speaker’s Paddy’s Day lunch in the Capitol with Obama.
Given the limited chances of broad immigration reforms, the Taoiseach discussed with Obama the possibility of visa waivers that would allow many US-based illegal Irish to return to Ireland to regularise their immigration status without being hit with three- or 10-year bars. The US embassy in Mexico has shown similar flexibility that could be applied in the case of illegal Irish.
Speaking to reporters afterwards, Kenny seemed to hint that waivers might not be easily obtained for the Irish. “There’s an issue about the waiver scheme and the way it applies,” he said.
For the illegal Irish, another St Patrick’s Day has passed and another measure to help them – more limited than in previous years – has been floated.