Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 20 November 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
US Immigration Reform: Discussion
We will proceed to No. 3 on our agenda, US immigration reform. I put this issue on the agenda because we will be dealing with the report on the visit in private session later. Many of the members are interested in getting an update on what is happening on immigration reform in the US at present. An all-party delegation of four members of the committee travelled to the US last October. The members were Deputy Nash, Senator Daly, Deputy Crowe and myself.
We went there at what we believed to be a very appropriate time to lobby members of the US Congress on immigration reform. The US Senate passed a Bill earlier in the summer by 68 votes to 22, so the issue was on the agenda for Congress when it returned in September. Unfortunately, due to events in Syria, it was postponed to later in the year. However, we were there at a very good time. The climate was ripe. We met ten or 15 very good congressmen from the Republicans as well as the Democrats. The focus of the visit was on the Republicans to get them to push for immigration reform. As we all know, however, a week is a long time in politics and since then the focus has moved to the Democrats because of Obamacare. The Republicans are in no hurry to take Obamacare off the agenda, which means, unfortunately, immigration reform has gone off the agenda.
We thought at the time there was a window of opportunity from Thanksgiving to Christmas to push for immigration reform. We did not expect to get full citizenship on the agenda so a number of the Bills we brought before Congress were mainly to do with legalisation. The Democrats would be pushing for citizenship because they believe the Latino vote will be on their side for the presidential elections while, of course, the Republicans do not want that to happen. We thought there would be a compromise, that a bipartisan approach would be taken and that a Bill on legalisation, perhaps, could be put before Congress before Christmas. It appears unlikely that will happen before Christmas, but it certainly has not gone off the agenda. I believe we should push to keep immigration reform on the agenda for the committee for the coming months, particularly in our work programme for 2014.
I commend the embassy in the US, Anne Anderson, Ralph Victory and the other personnel in the embassy for the work they are doing. While we were doing our bit there for three or four days, the embassy is pushing this agenda all the time and will be meeting key congressmen and their staff over the coming months.
I believe our visit was very successful. The up-to-date information we have from Washington is that it is highly unlikely anything will happen on immigration reform before Christmas. While there is a window of opportunity in the new year, there will be other issues to be discussed in Congress as well. Aside from Obamacare, there are budget issues. Congressman Paul Ryan is the chairman of that committee. The budget issue has been postponed but it will be on the agenda early in the new year. In addition, the elections in November take precedence and a number of primaries will take place in March, April and May, so there will be a small window of opportunity to push for immigration reform. On 17 March the Taoiseach will visit Washington and that issue will again be at the top of the agenda.
The visit was worthwhile. As one congressman told me, ours is the only country that lobbied congressmen on immigration reform, despite that the undocumented Irish only account for 50,000 of the 11 million undocumented people in the US. There are not as many people crossing the border from Mexico at present. The Mexican economy is beginning to grow again so there is not the same pressure there. All eyes will be on the Republicans again to see if they can push this agenda. Perhaps people such as Congressman Gutiérrez of Illinois and Congressman Paul Ryan, whom we believe to be working together, can take a bipartisan approach to this, bring some type of legislation to Congress in the new year and put immigration reform back on the agenda.
That is the current position. The climate changes very quickly in Congress. At the time we thought there was a window of opportunity, but now the issue is Obamacare and the Republicans are in no hurry to put immigration reform back on the agenda. Deputy Crowe travelled with us on that visit. Does he wish to comment on it? We will deal with the report in private session.
Like others, we were unsure of the timing of the visit. It had been postponed because of the situation in Syria and our visit occurred immediately after the Republicans were forced to agree to a temporary budget. Many of the Republicans in Congress appeared to be quite raw about that decision and how it was rolled out.
Other members of the delegation can speak for themselves but I was quite optimistic returning from the visit. We went over not knowing the potential but we returned with the feeling that it was still there to be won. It is wide open with regard to the lobby and I am quite optimistic we can push this across the line. I have been involved on this when there were great expectations that it would happen at the time, but it did not. If people are listening to this at home, they are probably wondering if they will be told again there is potential, only to have their hopes dashed. It makes sense, so logic is on our side.
President Obama said there is the time to do it. I do not know if his speech when we were there helped the situation. I expressed my view to some of the Democrats and his officials that if he would stay out of it, it might help the situation. Across the board, however, the people we met want a deal to happen. I was struck when one Republican congressman said to me: "If something is on the table, I can argue for or against it, but there is nothing there. It is a vacuum. I cannot go back to my constituency and argue one way or the other." People genuinely want it to happen. We have many friends there.
It was definitely a worthwhile trip. It involved many meetings but one could see we were having an impact. I concur with the Chairman about the work of the embassy.
The ambassador has really taken on the issue. While she is not long in her appointment, there has been nothing but praise for her work from Congressmen and the different emigrant groups. Politicians want to hear that our embassy staff are working on the ground and that everyone has his or her shoulder to the wheel. Many were telling us to keep it up and encourage people to use the contacts and lobbies available.
It is welcome that the delegation was engaged in an intense lobbying exercise with officials of the US Administration and Congress Members. We all want to see the matter progressed because not one week goes by without us receiving representations from families who wish to have the immigration status of a family member regularised. It is a difficult position to be in for many of those affected because they are not in a position to return home for family occasions, be they celebratory or bereavements.
The electoral cycle in the United States passes quickly and is a point of concern in resolving this issue. Several months ago when we discussed this matter with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, we were all agreed that when election mode kicked in in the United States, the level of collaboration to put through immigration reform legislation would decline. There is a two-year cycle for the House of Representatives and some Senators. Whatever has to be done must be done as quickly as possible. Every day lost makes it more difficult. What other lobbying can be engaged in to keep this matter on the agenda? I have always had confidence in our diplomatic staff and their capacity to network and talk to the real decision-makers and people of influence.
It is good to hear the meeting went well and that the group seems to be making progress, with Deputy Seán Crowe being up-beat and optimistic. It is concerning that the political cycle is so short in the United States as one is always heading into an election of some description. Earlier I heard the Irish wee the only grouping for the undocumented lobbying on the issue. It would be a help if other groupings were lobbying because this could bring more pressure on the politicians. It is incumbent on all Members to make contact with their relevant US counterparts on this issue and push for immigration reform legislation. Many families have loved ones who are not in a position to return home for family occasions, be they weddings or funerals. As Deputy Brendan Smith said, there is nothing on the table for people to either argue for or against.
I thank the Chairman and Deputy Seán Crowe for their report. We have to keep trying, but there have been many false dawns on this issue. Can anything be done to separate the Irish from the rest? I recall that the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, raised this matter with George W. Bush when they met him in the White House. Mr. Bush was positive about looking after the number of Irish involved because they came to only 50,000 in number. That was until his adviser told him at the meeting about the 6 million Mexicans in Texas, which changed the dynamics. Is there an opportunity to go for a bilateral arrangement with the United States similar t the one reached between the United States and Australia? We need more than just the single strand of trying to get all 11 million illegal immigrants across the line.
There was a proposal in the Senate legislation that 10,500 E3 visas would be issued every year. We did not push this because it would have been part of the pre-conference. We were told that if a bipartisan approach was taken on the issue, six Bills would be put to the Senate, with one of which most of the undocumented Irish would be happy. If this legislation was referred to the Senate, it would be dealed with in a pre-conference with Senate and Congress leaders. John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, has said, however, that unless he has a majority, he will not put anything through. That is the obstacle we are up against. It must be remembered that for Tea Party Republicans, immigration reform are red letter words in their states. If they were to mention anything about immigration reform, their chances of being re-elected would be zero. As one Congressman told me, if our Lord our God came looking for a visa, he would refuse Him.
Deputy Brendan Smith is correct that there is always a danger we could fall between stools on this issue which has been ongoing for years. I am not so sure we need to isolate the Irish from the other undocumented. We can claim a certain priority because of the commitment of the Irish to the United States for many years. I know the point that has been made about the Mexicans. Several years ago I met a US Congressman who wanted to put a wire fence between Mexico and the United States.
We need to be mindful that persons who are stateless in another land are always open to exploitation. It can also happen in this country. A case must be made internationally for the recognition of their entitlements, including access to their human rights.
I agree entirely with Deputy Smith in that area. We need to be doing it on a continual basis, and not apologising for it either. There should be no apology for this. There are countless persons in my constituency who can never come home, who can never leave there. The fact that they are trapped there is a clear indication. If they show themselves at all, they are gone forever and that leaves them open to exploitation.
I would not be at all apologetic. We made considerable sacrifices as a nation to the United States over the years. There was a significant commitment. I can remember when I was a child seeing guys coming home from the Korean War. I was talking to a guy the other night who was in Dien Bien Phu in French Indochina. We had something of a commitment. There are those who talk about Ireland as a neutral nation with no international commitments, etc. We paid our price, however, and we deserve to be treated as such as well.
We will be returning to this in the report in any event. We will keep this high on the agenda and we will return to it in the new year when we hope there will be another window of opportunity for some form of immigration reform to be tabled in the United States Congress.
The committee will be aware of what went on in September with the United States budget and the crisis that arose. There will be an opportunity from time to time for members of Congress who pass through this country and stop off here. If they do so, we will try to meet them.
Some years ago there used be biannual visits, between the foreign relations committee of the Congress and this committee and the Oireachtas in general. There were visits to the United States one year and they visited here another year. Is that arrangement gone by the wayside?
We can talk to the US embassy official, Mr. Stuart Dwyer, in that regard. As the committee will be aware, we do not yet have an ambassador. It has been almost 12 months. I suppose if a new ambassador was appointed early in the new year, we could invite him or her to an informal meeting and put that top of the agenda as well.
The Chairman raised an important point about the non-appointment of an ambassador from the United States for over 12 months. That seems extraordinary, given that we are supposed to have good relations with the United States. The fact that they would leave the embassy without an ambassador for that length of time indicates a certain detachment or disconnection. I do not know whether it is even within our remit but we should be making our views known, either to the Department or to the embassy staff.
I would regard that as not a good indicator of President Obama's interest. We have received tremendous support from Administrations in the United States in recent times but the Obama Administration has not given any indication of any real interest in Ireland.
I suggest that at the next meeting we ask the Tánaiste to raise the issue of an ambassador at the highest level. Is that agreed? Agreed. That should be fine. I propose we go into private session. Is that agreed? Agreed.