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

Sitting in front of congressman Paul Ryan on his desk is a poster, Advice to Irish Immigrants, written by the Irish government and posted on ships leaving Ireland for the United States in the 1850s.

“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.

Democrats see anything short of that as creating a class of second-tier American, an unacceptable position for them. Conservative Republicans, on the other hand, view the pathway as profoundly unfair as it disadvantages legal immigrants and amounts to an amnesty by another name.

Despite the cross-party support for the Senate bill, Ryan says the House will fix immigration their own way and take a slower, piecemeal approach, ensuring that border security and internal enforcement is strengthened to prevent more illegal workers entering the country in tandem with undocumented workers “coming out of the shadows”, paying fines and getting a type of probationary visa.

Ryan says illegal immigrants must go to the back of the line, behind legal immigrants. “We don’t want a system where a person who over-stayed their visa or crossed the border illegally is rewarded by having a faster pathway to citizenship than that legal immigrant who did things right,” he says.

Economic benefits
House Republicans believe the Senate bill doesn't go far enough on border security and internal immigrant checks as it gives too much control to an administration they do not trust, says Ryan.

“It puts too much discretion in the hands of the administration to determine border security. When the president is unilaterally delaying huge parts of his healthcare law without constitutional authority, it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to think he could do that in other areas,” he says.

The new-found desire among more Republicans to fix the immigration system is, to many, linked to Romney's poor showing among the growing number of Hispanic voters. Their overwhelming support for Barack Obama guaranteed him a second presidential term. Republicans, certainly at senior levels of the party, view immigration reform as essential if they are going to regain the White House.

“I don’t think we should do this if our primary reason is because it is good for politics,” says Ryan, who is tipped as a potential 2016 presidential contender. “We should be doing this because it is good policy.”

Senate Republicans saw the importance of immigration reform to the party’s national brand. Last month 14 of the 45 Republican senators sided with Democrats to secure that passing of the Senate’s immigration bill by 68 votes to 32.

The last time sweeping immigration reforms came before the Senate in 2007, just 12 of the 49 Republican senators in the chamber supported legislation pushed by president George W Bush, a member of their own party. The Senate voted down the bill by 53 votes to 46.

Deeper in America’s political heartland, as represented in the House where Republicans control 234 of the 435 seats, passing any kind of major immigration legislation will be even trickier.

In a major speech on the US economy on Wednesday, President Obama attacked “a faction of Republicans in the House” for the gridlock in Congress, saying that they won’t even give a vote to an immigration bill that economists say will boost the US economy by more than $1 trillion (€760 billion).

Ryan cites the economic benefits as a reason to pass immigration reform – moving to an economic-based immigration system will grow the working population and help cover the cost of a doubling in the US retired population as the Baby Boom generation become pensioners, he says.

Neal believes that if the US unemployment rate, now at 7.5 per cent, was closer to the post-War norm of 4.5 per cent, there would be “an entirely different conversation” around immigration reform.

“If everyone was working you would see a very different approach to this,” he says. “Nativism is built into part of the American psyche – the fear that somebody is going to take your job.”

Republican opposition to immigration reform is also due to the make-up of their constituencies.

The redrawing of congressional districts or “partisan redistricting” has created gerrymandered electoral areas, greater concentrations of homogenous voters and stronger voting majorities.

Sitting House Republicans fear more conservative challengers in their own party emerging ahead of the midterm elections in November 2014.

This makes passing immigration reform even more challenging and pressing as members of Congress start their primary campaigns later this year. The way in which districts are drawn favours the incumbent party, says Manus Cooney, a former adviser to a Republican senator and a Washington lobbyist with consultants American Continental Group who has advised Irish immigration groups.

As a result many House members believe that they are as likely – or more likely – to be beaten by a primary opponent than by a general election rival.

“Unlike the Senate, where senators come from a state constituency, in the House of Representatives you are dealing with a much more local and politically gerrymandered voting bloc,” he said.

“As a result it is very hard to get Republicans, and conservative Republicans in particular, to vote for immigration reform that includes some form of pathway to citizenship or amnesty, whatever you want to call it, because they are likely to face a primary challenge if they do.”

A third of House Republicans have been in Congress for three years or less. Many were elected over conservative fears about Obamacare, which forces Americans to buy health insurance or else face a tax, so they remain suspicious of issues that are popular in Washington but not elsewhere in the US.

“What’s going to move Republicans is in-district town-hall meetings with constituents, at barbecues: most House Republicans not only say, but believe, that immigration reform is not a priority for their electorate because they are not hearing about it in their districts. The extent they hear about it is when they come to Washington,” says Cooney.

House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, is a pivotal player in the immigration debate. He has invoked the "Hastert rule" which means any bill must be supported by most House Republicans, "the majority of the majority".

While individual measures within the Senate immigration bill, such as provisions to increase visas for high-tech workers and 10,500 new E3 working visas for the Irish every year, may be supported by the majority of Republicans and Democrats, combining all these measures with the pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants (a showstopper for conservatives) means a comprehensive bill will falter in the House. If the bill is broken out, debated and voted on in parts, Boehner’s role will be crucial.

"What he is dealing with right now are folks within his party who are trying to poison any well when he tries to deal with immigration reform within his caucus, either by piecemeal or in whole," says congressman Joe Crowley, a Democrat from New York, who has called for Irish-Americans across the US to press the case for immigration reform with their congressional representatives.

Crowley and Neal say immigration reform has a 50:50 chance of passing; Ryan says it’s “better than even”.

House Republicans want to “fix this once and for all” without having to deal with millions more illegal immigrants 10 years from now, he says.

“There are too many national security threats and economic concerns to ignore. We just want to find where the consensus lies and get it right. I am cautiously optimistic that we can do that.”