Dáil debates

Thursday, 10 November 2005

Priority Questions.

Undocumented Irish.

2:00 pm

Photo of Bernard AllenBernard Allen (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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Question 1: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs the recent contact that he has had with the administration of the United States of America concerning the difficulties faced by the undocumented Irish there; the efforts being taken by the Government to assist these undocumented Irish; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33560/05]

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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Question 3: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs the position regarding undocumented Irish in the USA; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33720/05]

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 3 together.

Immigration has become a highly sensitive and divisive issue in the United States since the tragic events of 11 September 2001. As a result, the position of our undocumented citizens in the US has become progressively more difficult. The quality of daily life for those affected has worsened with constant stress and anxiety as well as sadness at the inability of the undocumented to return temporarily to Ireland in the event of bereavement or serious illness of a relative or for other family occasions such as weddings.

As the House is aware, the issue of the undocumented and the difficulties they face are matters of the highest priority for the Government. In all our contacts with political leaders of the United States, including when the Taoiseach and I met President Bush earlier in the year, we have emphasised the importance of addressing this issue in a positive and sympathetic way.

On my visit to New York and Boston last week, I again stressed the high priority the Government attaches to the issue and to resolving it as soon as possible. To intensify our efforts further, which includes intensive ongoing lobbying by our ambassador and the embassy, I will visit Washington later this month for a series of meetings where I will once more strongly underline the priority which the Government attaches to securing the desired reforms.

I also express the Government's appreciation of the all-party support for the Government's efforts on behalf of the undocumented. Many Members of the Oireachtas, including the Ceann Comhairle and Deputy Kenny, have given generously of their time to this important issue. The consensus in the Oireachtas was clearly demonstrated by the contribution of colleagues in both Houses during the debate on the all-party motions last month. I have conveyed these motions to the United States administration and to key players on Capitol Hill, including to Senators Kennedy and McCain.

The legislative debate in Washington DC is entering a critical phase with various proposals under consideration, including the Bill jointly sponsored by Senators McCain and Kennedy. If this Bill were adopted in its present form, it would provide a path to permanent residency and, as a result, enable the undocumented to participate in the life of their adopted country free from fear and uncertainty. The Government strongly supports this Bill and I have instructed the embassy and consulates to intensify their lobbying in support of it.

In addition to my commitment to try to advance the interests of the undocumented through legislative reform, I recently announced grants to Irish immigration centres in the US totalling $815,000. This represented an increase of 40% on last year. Any Irish person in the US in need of guidance and support at this complex time of change should approach one of these excellent centres. They provide a range of invaluable information and advisory services, and we warmly appreciate their work. While in New York last week, I again had the opportunity to see their work at first hand and to convey our deep appreciation for it, as I know many Deputies on all sides have also done.

Photo of Bernard AllenBernard Allen (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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My party is vigorous in its approach to the Bills before the Senate and the House of Representatives at present. The Minister referred to Deputy Kenny who was lobbying strongly in the United States last weekend. Deputy Connaughton led a group of Fine Gael Deputies to the United States earlier this year. We believe up to 50,000 undocumented Irish fear being involved in a minor breach of the law, consequently being sent home and branded as criminals. This fear should not exist. Does the Minister agree these people have contributed enormously to the economy of the United States and should be recognised for this?

Having had discussions with the authorities in the United States, is the Minister optimistic the Kennedy-McCain and Colby Bills will pass the judicial committee, the House of Representatives and the Senate?

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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I acknowledge the work Deputy Allen's party and all parties have done on this. The Kennedy-McCain Bills are on one side of the spectrum and other proposals exist on the other side of the spectrum, which are very restrictive. In recent times the United States administration has made suggestions on how this matter might be addressed. President Bush has not commented specifically on this other than to state that if increased enforcement is introduced, the large number of undocumented workers must be dealt with.

The undocumented Irish may account for between 25,000 and 50,000 of a total of approximately 11 million affected, and this includes many nationalities. Suggestions from the administration have not included past permanent residency and I fear that unless some concession is made on the issue of permanent residency, the undocumented people will not come forward. They will fear that if they are granted a temporary six-year visa, the authorities will know where they are when the visa expires. We are not dictating to the authorities of the United States but we must articulate the views of our people. Unless this matter is dealt with in a way that encourages people to come forward willingly, it will not be a success.

I have asked the embassy and consulate in the United States to give this top priority over the next few months. There is a window of opportunity, particularly in the new year, and after that the United States will be in election mode. At that stage, this matter will not be dealt with in a rational manner.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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The Minister has the full support of the Independent Deputies. Does he have the figure for undocumented Irish in the United States? Today we heard a reference to 50,000 but I have heard figures as high as 80,000 to 100,000 and as low as 15,000 to 20,000. Does the Minister find it unacceptable that Irish citizens in the United States cannot travel home for family events such as weddings, funerals and Christmas? This causes extreme hardship to many families in Ireland.

Does the Minister accept that these people make a major contribution to the economy and society of the United States? We have a cross-party obligation to support them. I commend the politicians in the United States who support this legislation and I urge the Minister to continue to lobby. Any assistance that can be given to the immigration centres should be supported.

Does the Minister find it strange to fight for the rights of our undocumented citizens in the United States when immigrants are being hounded out of this country? Does he feel uncomfortable about this?

Séamus Pattison (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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That is a separate issue.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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I ask the Minister to be more proactive in dealing with the undocumented Irish in the United States, particularly in defending their rights and protecting Irish citizens abroad. This is a very important issue. Recently the Minister was active in the case of Mr. Rory Carroll.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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Defending the rights of Irish citizens abroad is part of the remit of my Department. There is nothing more I can do to defend the rights of undocumented Irish in the United States. I have been in the United States six times in the past nine months, albeit on other business on some occasions but I raised the issue of the undocumented Irish every time. Last week, I had a meeting with former President Bill Clinton on overseas development aid issues and the role of the Clinton Foundation. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, is undertaking such work with the former US President in Mozambique. I raised the issue of undocumented Irish people in America with Mr. Clinton and received an undertaking that he would use his influence in whatever way he could in this regard.

On one of my previous visits to America I met a person who had obtained a green card and works with a computer company in an immigration centre in Boston. He suggested we should create a database of Irish people who find themselves in this situation. I suggested in turn that we would provide funding for the compilation of such a database. Most of the immigration centres said it was not feasible, however, because people would not come forward fearing they might be pinpointed in future. I accept that argument. The figure for undocumented Irish people in America is somewhere in the region of 25,000 to 50,000 at the outer limit. The US Administration says it is approximately 5,000 but we believe there are 5,000 alone in a city such as San Francisco.

This issue runs across party lines in the Oireachtas and involves all Members, including Independent Deputies. In our constituency offices we come across families who say their sons or daughters cannot come home for an important life event.

Photo of Dinny McGinleyDinny McGinley (Donegal South West, Fine Gael)
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Yes.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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That causes grave concern. I accept that such people contribute greatly to the US economy, as undocumented people generally do. Those who argue against the Kennedy-McCain measure, suggest that the 11 million undocumented people must return whence they came in order to apply for legal resident status. That is a totally impractical suggestion, however, because the US economy could not deal with it. Proposals that do not include a path to legal residency are delaying the problem for another three to six years, at which point it will have to be dealt with again.