Opportunity missed on Capitol Hill to raise plight of illegal Irish

Enda Kenny should have focused more on Republicans this year


Within an hour of Taoiseach Enda Kenny and President Barack Obama finishing their rack of lamb and sticky toffee pudding at the St Patrick’s Day lunch at one end of the US Capitol, one of the staunchest opponents of US immigration reform was sounding off on his concerns about making illegal immigrants legal at the other.

Where last Tuesday’s annual Friends of Ireland lunch shows the access Ireland and the Irish Government has in Washington, the press conference held by Republican senator Jeff Sessions in the Senate press gallery shows where the Irish delegation in Washington should be concentrating its lobbying efforts most.

The plight of the 50,000 illegal Irish immigrants in the US was high on the Taoiseach’s agenda in private meetings with Obama, vice-president Joe Biden and senior Capitol Hill figures such as Democratic senators Chuck Schumer and Pat Leahy, and former Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain.

But this is a case of preaching to the converted. Obama and Biden want to push through wide-ranging changes to immigration laws that will put the 11 million “undocumented” on the road to US citizenship. Schumer and McCain are on opposite sides on Capitol Hill but are members of the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” group – the four Democrats and four Republicans who have come up with their own proposals to make citizens of the undocumented and have promised to have a bill ready by next month.

Influential figure
Pat Leahy of Vermont is an influential figure in the immigration debate given his role as chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, which will dissect any proposed immigration legislation, but he is a friend of Ireland and featured prominently at the various St Patrick’s Day events over the past week.

Sessions is at the far extreme in the immigration debate and perhaps a bad example of someone an Irish Government delegation should meet. He might meet them but he is unlikely to be swayed. He is strongly against any form of citizenship for illegal immigrants. The Alabama senator wants to limit entry to the US to people who will be “successful” – a hard gauge for any immigration officer to measure.

There has been no comprehensive reform of US immigration laws since the 1980s. The US senate killed off the last major immigration bill, pushed by Democrat Ted Kennedy and McCain, in 2007, after it fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed in the 100-member Senate. This is about the level of support required, mostly on the Republican side, to ensure a bill is passed this time around.

Strangely, a script of the Taoiseach’s speech to the Capitol Hill luncheon, circulated by his department in advance, contained a passage encouraging the efforts of Congress to reform immigration laws, yet Kenny made no reference at all to the undocumented Irish in his speech, according to the official transcript circulated by the White House later that day. (The speeches were closed to the press.)

Public forum
The Taoiseach’s spokesman said “time is a factor at all engagements and can sometimes lead to shortening of speeches – it is often unavoidable”. He stressed, however, that immigration was a matter “pursued with vigour throughout our time in Washington”.

The lunch was a missed opportunity to raise the predicament of the undocumented in a very public forum on Capitol Hill. It was, after all, hosted by the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, a senior Republican.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore seems to have been more targeted in his efforts. He met Republican senator Johnny Isakson in Georgia on his trip to Atlanta and GOP congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin in Washington. During meetings with US secretary of state John Kerry Gilmore raised the possibility of extending “E3” visas to Irish people to allow them to work for up to two years. While the plight of the Irish undocumented is vital in Irish lobbying efforts, the case for immigration reform to help Irish graduates is stronger given the state of the US economy and what those graduates could offer.

The Irish may traditionally have found greater favour among Democrats (although the George W Bush White House continued the annual shamrock summit when there were concerns he wouldn’t), but the visiting Government party should have had sought out more meetings with Republicans this year given the blocking power they hold in Congress and even take advantage of the divisions within the party’s ranks.

At a time when the Republican senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a poster boy of the right-wing Tea Party, says he would support a path to legalisation for the undocumented, inviting more GOP members to St Patrick’s Day parties in Washington and meeting more of them should have been part of the Government’s game plan this year.

Having said that, in terms of political capital, you can have all the Paddy’s Day parties you want but it’s the growing Hispanic vote that really counts for Republicans.