Dáil debates

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Undocumented Irish in the United States: Motion (Resumed).

 

The following motion was moved by Deputy Michael Ring on Tuesday, 6 November 2007:

"That Dáil Éireann, recognises:

the very difficult situation for thousands of Irish people of undocumented status living and working in the United States;

the difficulties that the undocumented Irish experience because of their irregular legal status and the fear of deportation;

that the undocumented deserve enormous credit for their highly effective public awareness and lobbying campaign in the United States, particularly through the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform;

the ongoing efforts of the Government, members of the Oireachtas and the undocumented Irish themselves to bring this situation to a satisfactory resolution;

the strong economic ties between the island of Ireland and the United States and the contribution that Irish emigrants make to economic, social and cultural life in the US; and

that efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the United States Congress have so far been unsuccessful;

welcomes:

the commitment of the Government and the Oireachtas to finding a satisfactory solution for the undocumented and to creating new reciprocal immigration arrangements between Ireland and the United States aimed at further enhancing our close bilateral relationship; and

the strong support given by many members of the United States Congress to Irish issues, including efforts to resolve the difficulties facing the undocumented;

supports:

ongoing discussions at the highest level with the US Administration and Congress to establish reciprocal bilateral arrangements which would benefit Irish and American citizens seeking to work and travel in our two countries; and

the strong commitment of the Oireachtas and the Government to continued engagement with the US Administration and Congress to resolve the difficulties experienced by the undocumented."

6:00 pm

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
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I wish to share time with Deputy Damien English.

Photo of John O'DonoghueJohn O'Donoghue (Ceann Comhairle; Kerry South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

7:00 pm

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
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This motion is obscure but, nevertheless, very worthy. I congratulate and thank Deputy Michael Ring on tabling it. I also thank the Government for agreeing to it and ensuring it has cross-party support because we are talking about approximately 50,000 — it is said that is a conservative enough figure — of our citizens who are undocumented and living in America. When one considers there are approximately 11 million undocumented people living in America, one realises the scale of the problem. That figure should also indicate it is problem for which a solution must be found.

The term "undocumented" is probably a far more acceptable one than the one we use, namely, "illegal immigrant". We will have to deal with the issue of illegal immigrants as well. We cannot very well say our citizens in America, who happen to be undocumented, must be dealt with in a particular way but not go any way towards dealing with undocumented people in Ireland.

The term "illegal" pollutes the debate because it is very difficult to deal with someone who is illegal. If someone is legal but undocumented, it is much easier to give him or her documentation and find a solution to the problem than it is to make someone legal. We will have to come to terms with the type of language we use and how we treat people who come to this country if we are to expect other countries to deal with people in a certain way.

It is vital that the message which goes out from this House is a united one. That message is that we have citizens living and working in America who have families, drive, pay their taxes and contribute in all sorts of ways to society. If something untoward should befall them, they would find themselves in circumstances in which they are completely exposed.

The driver licence crisis in New York is but one of the issues thrown up by this notion of being undocumented in a foreign country. Some 152,000 people are about to lose their licences in New York. The new governor has put forward a solution which would benefit people who are there legally, who have driver licences and who are insured. Surely it would also benefit them to know that other people on the road are licensed and insured. However, even those people have put up huge resistance to people who are undocumented getting driver licences. It shows the solution will not be as easy as we think but one must be found.

That solution must be found nationally, state-wide and federally because, in some cases, people have been living in America for 20 to 30 years. They have families, are married, own homes, drive cars and pay taxes. Are we or are Americans to say to them they cannot stay there any longer and must leave?

What happens when a family member at home becomes ill or dies? What is the solution then? People cannot come home for fear of not being able to return to their families. We must be strong about this but not hypocritical. We cannot speak out of the two sides of our mouth.

In regard to the driver licence issue in New York, a gentleman told me his son is illegal in America and has a European driver licence which does not need a photograph but which will expire. Surely a sensible solution to the driver licence issue is for consulates in America, whether Irish, English, French or whatever, to be able to renew their citizens' driver licences. That would be a solution which would get over a very serious issue. It would not legalise someone or give him or her any additional rights or the right of residence etc. However, it would enable them to drive safely and to be insured. Surely this is the solution and is something we could do for this young man.

It beggars belief that 152,000 people in New York would have no driver licence and, therefore, would not be insured even though they need to drive for work or for business. We have the solution to that problem in our hands.

I congratulate Deputy Michael Ring and the Government on taking the motion on board. With combined effort, we must find a solution to this problem. It is not beyond our wit. We should encourage the US Congress to find a solution. It will not be easy and no one is saying it will be. However, we should give them whatever encouragement we can. We should tell them that from now on we will be eternally grateful to them for assisting people who have put down roots in America and who wish to stay there because they like the lifestyle, have probably married American citizens, have children who feel American and go to school there and who use the transport system. A solution must be found and it should not be beyond our wit to do so.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I am delighted to have the chance to speak on this important motion and I thank my colleague, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, for sharing her time. This is a serious issue which affects nearly all our families as well as our electorates. I welcome the cross-party support for this motion and compliment the Government in this regard. This is the second time in this Dáil that we have had agreement on a motion in Private Members' time. It is nice to see and I hope it continues over the next couple of years rather than going back to the old way of opposing each other for the sake of it because it does not get us anywhere.

This is a very important issue and I thank the Government for all it has done over the past couple of years in this regard. I know it has been working very hard. Last night, the Minister of State alluded to the amount of money being spent and the work being done. The amount spent back in 1997 was also referred to but that was a different century and a different time. I ask Ministers to stop referring to 1997 as a benchmark against which to monitor increases in expenditure because it is a waste of time and is going back to a different era.

I compliment Niall O'Dowd, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd's brother, on the work he is doing in America with his group, the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. It is doing a great job, engaging in a very constructive debate and keeping the issue to the fore.

Immigration has become an important and emotive issue in Ireland, so I can imagine what it is like in America, especially after 11 September 2001. Deputy Kathleen Lynch touched on the issue of immigration. We have very serious immigration problems which we are not handling well. The Government is not taking enough of a lead in trying to educate the people about immigrants and foreign nationals coming into the country so they can work with them, etc. Many staff in Departments and in the various arms of Government are finding it difficult to work with non-nationals and those coming here from other countries. We have a lot to do ourselves to integrate foreign nationals coming to Ireland, whether from America, Europe, Africa or elsewhere.

Thankfully, the Irish integrate very well in America, partly because they are allowed to do so. Many people who left these shores now own businesses in the US and are employing people there. Their jobs are contributing much to all parts of the US, socially and economically. We need to learn from the manner in which Irish people have been accepted in the US. We should accept those who have come to Ireland in a much better way. Government initiatives and education are needed if immigrants are to integrate and be accepted.

This issue is a difficult one. We all get calls from our neighbours, friends and clients who live abroad. They ring us on a regular basis to find out if there is any news, or any hope of change in this regard. It is getting hard to keep giving those people hope. We were nearly there on a few occasions over recent years, only to fail at the end. I ask that an extra push be made to try to get us across the line. Is there something we can do at this end to lead the way? Can we relax the rules slightly to assist Americans who are coming in here, especially those who are partners of Irish people? Maybe we can do a little to lead the way on our side. The Minister of State, Deputy Michael Kitt, seemed quite positive during his speech last night. He seemed to suggest that good news will emerge. When he responded to parliamentary questions on this issue in October, however, he stated clearly that he did not have much hope for any change in this regard in advance of next year's elections in the US. That concern was not mentioned last night. We need to give people proper information and really push this hard. Perhaps we can do something at our end to lead the way on this matter.

Photo of Tony KilleenTony Killeen (Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I would like to share time with Deputies Nolan and Curran.

Photo of John O'DonoghueJohn O'Donoghue (Ceann Comhairle; Kerry South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Tony KilleenTony Killeen (Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Clare, Fianna Fail)
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This important debate follows an all-party motion on this issue that was agreed in this House and the Seanad in October 2005. I agree with Deputies English and Lynch that it is critical that tonight's motion be agreed by Deputies on all sides of the House. We need to send a positive message that all parties are united on this issue, even if it is something that happens infrequently.

It is important to acknowledge that many Members on all sides of the House have worked proactively on trips to the United States in support of measures which would assist the undocumented Irish. We should bear in mind that the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs avail of the opportunity to make the case for the undocumented Irish every time they visit the US, particularly on St. Patrick's Day. Every time the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, has an opportunity to meet his counterpart in the US Administration and other officials in that country, he uses it to highlight this issue. Some benefits are arising from that, and some benefits have certainly arisen from the Taoiseach's active involvement in pursuing the same case.

It is fair to commend the engagement by people on all sides of the House in this matter. I refer in particular to the willingness of Deputies to travel to Washington, New York, Boston and various other places to support the undocumented Irish by meeting them, giving them practical support and making their case at Congress level. Many previous speakers acknowledged the work of the representatives of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, whom I have met. Mr. Niall O'Dowd of the Irish Voice has quite rightly been singled out for his capacity to access the Irish community in the US. He has been quite forceful in driving this movement forward.

I acknowledge the work of the Irish abroad unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs, which gives practical and financial assistance to Irish citizens in many countries. I have worked with officials from the unit on many occasions. They have made a tremendous difference to the quality of support that is available to the undocumented Irish abroad. The Irish Embassy and consulates in the United States have been hugely proactive in advancing this case. We should also acknowledge the work of the Catholic Church and other churches in supporting undocumented people from Ireland and other countries in a practical way and engaging politically to advance this campaign.

Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain have been to the fore in advancing this cause at Congress level. They have done tremendous work. Some people who are not as politically active as they used to be, such as the former Congressman Bruce Morrison, have also played a hugely important role. I appreciate the advice we have received from such people when we have visited the US on various occasions. When the current governor of New York State, Mr. Eliot Spitzer, visited Ireland two years ago, I hosted part of that visit and spoke with him. I am pleased with his initiative in New York State, which benefits many people. It is clear that his work on driving licences benefits many Irish citizens. I was pleased to meet Mr. Spitzer again last week in Lisbon, when we signed the International Carbon Action Partnership.

Like my colleagues on all sides of the House, I have travelled to Washington and other US cities to support this campaign. I was the Government's representative on a campaign organised by the US apostolic ministry. It was encouraging and instructive. I learned about the difficulties people have to address and the action that can be taken to support them. Along with FÁS, I hosted a jobs event in New York last year. I found it extraordinary that so many US citizens, some of Irish descent but many with no connection to this country, were interested in getting information about jobs in Ireland and eventually coming to work here. The idea of some kind of bilateral arrangement was mooted at that time. I was strongly advised at the time that positive moves on Capitol Hill should be supported and seen as the first step in terms of general immigration reform. I believe that was the correct strategy at the time.

Deputy English argued that it is important to give people an accurate picture of how immigration is evolving in the United States. It is notoriously difficult to do that, however, because the immigration picture can change quite quickly and radically. While that was the correct strategy at one time, it now serves as an illustration of how difficult it can be to bring immigration reform to a successful conclusion.

No level of agreement has been reached on the number of undocumented Irish in the US. The authorities in that country seem to believe there are just 3,000 undocumented Irish there, but many of those involved in this campaign think there are more than 50,000 undocumented Irish in America. Figures released by the Department of Foreign Affairs suggest that there are approximately 25,000 undocumented Irish in the United States. While they comprise a substantial group of Irish people, they should be considered in the context of the 11 million undocumented people who are living in the US.

It is hardly surprising that the US Administration and the citizens of that country have particular sensitivities in this respect as a consequence of the events of 11 September 2001. We need to accept that certain sectors of US society strongly believe that the introduction of legislation to legalise undocumented immigrants would serve to reward those who have broken the laws of that country. That is one of the big difficulties to be overcome by this campaign and other campaigns aimed at improving the lot of undocumented people in the US.

Some people believe that the US Administration's visa arrangements with the Governments of Australia, Chile and Singapore afford a level of protection to undocumented people from those countries. That is not the case, sadly. The arrangements allow a set number of people to work on short-term work visas in the United States, but they do not in any way address the difficulties faced by the undocumented citizens of such states. That would not be a suitable route for Ireland to follow. While it would offer hope to Irish people who would like to work in the US in the future, it would not address the central issues of those who are currently in the US without documentation.

It is no wonder that there is a substantial number of Irish people in the US. It would be surprising if that were not the case. It is not that long since over 40,000 people were leaving this country every year. It was inevitable that some of them would put down roots, marry and have reason to stay in the US. They were unable to avail of the job opportunities which became available in Ireland in more recent years. It was a huge turn-around that a Government delegation had to go to America to encourage US citizens and Irish people who had emigrated to come to Ireland to take up work opportunities here. It was wonderful to see hundreds of educated, energetic and idealistic young people at a graduation ceremony in Galway earlier today who can remain in Ireland if they wish to do so. The vast majority of their counterparts 15 years ago would have had to emigrate.

It is also important to examine the political background to this issue. There is a long history of political and social connections between Ireland and the US. Approximately 36 million US citizens claim to be of Irish descent. We sometimes make good use of the Irish lobby in the US, which is hugely important there. We have to continue to make as good use as possible of the Irish lobby there.

When one is forced by circumstances to examine the technical difficulties and obstacles one is trying to address, it is important not to forget the reality of family life for the undocumented Irish in the US and their families back in Ireland. Many of the people we are discussing have elderly parents who are not well enough to travel to the US to visit them, although they could do so quite legally. It is a fact the undocumented Irish cannot return here for weddings and funerals and all kinds of family events which in Irish society, family members would normally be expected to attend. This is the nub of the difficulty and the human face of what could be regarded in bureaucratic and legislative terms. It is a real problem for families from all parts of the country, many of whom are from the west, who are living in the United States.

The diversity visa lottery programme accommodates a certain number of people each year and a significant number of American citizens work for Irish companies. Deputy Lynch succinctly illustrated our own difficulties when trying to deal with people who have come to this country which gives us an insight into the perspective of the US authorities as they see 11 million people who are undocumented in their country.

I am grateful to Deputies on all sides of the House for the all-party agreement on this motion as was the case in 2005. Everybody is determined to play a proactive role in trying to ensure a positive outcome for the undocumented Irish in the US.

Photo of M J NolanM J Nolan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share time with Deputy Curran.

Like previous speakers, I am pleased to note the all-party agreement on this motion. I cannot see how it could be any other way. The Government and committees of this House have made strenuous efforts over the past five years and have had occasion to travel to the United States and have lobbied on behalf of the undocumented Irish. I was disappointed the efforts made by Senator Ted Kennedy last year and earlier this year were unsuccessful. We were all hopeful that significant progress would be made in regularising the undocumented Irish.

A total of 11 million workers in the United States are undocumented and the Irish element is a total of approximately 20,000 to 25,000. The US authorities have told us that they cannot separate the Irish from the other undocumented people even though the Irish make up a small part of the total and even though the Irish have a strong tradition of emigration to the United States. Ireland is connected to the US by nine daily flights, compared to 20 years ago when there was a twice weekly service between the two countries. This gives some idea of the throughput of individuals travelling between the two countries. The last US census figures show that 30 million people claim Irish blood.

I commend the Government and the Department of Foreign Affairs in particular for its support of Irish groups overseas. Our recent prosperity should be celebrated by all Irish people. It is important to recognise and acknowledge the work being done by voluntary groups in the US and in other countries on behalf of Irish emigrants, many of whom in the UK and in Australia and New Zealand may have moved on in years and have fallen on hard times. The Government acknowledges the role of voluntary groups in supporting those individuals. In 2007 the Department has made €15 million available to these groups.

I am pleased there is all-party support for this motion. I encourage the Minister and the Taoiseach to use every opportunity, in particular the opportunity afforded to the Taoiseach on the occasion of St. Patrick's Day celebrations, to continue to lobby senior politicians and the Administration in Washington on behalf of the undocumented Irish. Most Members will be acquainted with individuals who are in the US and who are unable to return for family occasions such as weddings or funerals because they are unclear as to whether they would be allowed re-enter the United States.

I commend the Minister and the Government on the work and I commend the Opposition for the all-party agreement on this motion.

Photo of John CurranJohn Curran (Dublin Mid West, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share time with Deputy Mansergh.

I thank the Opposition for tabling this motion and I commend all sides of the House for agreeing the motion. We all have constituents who are affected by this issue. There was all-party agreement on the last occasion this issue was raised in the House in October 2005. I appreciate that the Opposition made use of Private Members' time and agreed to a joint motion.

Many of us in our capacity as public representatives have worked on this issue. We all know constituents who have been adversely affected. These are people who left Ireland when it was a different country, when the prosperity we now enjoy was not to be seen. People left this country for the US and for one reason or another could not return to Ireland. They are currently living in the US in different circumstances and those we refer to as the undocumented Irish are contributing to the society and the economy of the United States. We want them to be regularised so they can be part of the country in which they live and work and where they have married and have children. It is a complicated story and the total number of undocumented people of all nationalities is up to 12 million. Members of this House have travelled to the United States and have discussed this matter with Senators and Congressmen from all sides.

I had the opportunity to travel to the US a number of years ago and met with Congressmen and Senators. We met Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator John McCain. On foot of our all-party delegation meeting with Senator John McCain, a motion on the undocumented Irish was tabled and debated in this House and in the other House and agreed by all parties in October 2005. It set out not a Government position but the position of both Houses of this Parliament regarding people who have emigrated. That motion was precipitated by a request from Senator John McCain and we delivered it. Two years later we are in the same situation and it is disappointing that progress has not been made. We may question what action the Government, the Minister or the Taoiseach can take. We might pass the buck and say it is up to the US Senate and Congress. As Members of this House we hold positions of influence, no matter what side of the House we are on. We should use that influence well and effectively.

I refer to the 29th Dáil and compliment a colleague, Deputy John Cregan from Limerick, who chaired an all-party ad hoc group with an interest in the undocumented Irish. He represented that cause here in the House and he also travelled to the US. I understand Deputy Cregan will continue to work in that capacity. That is important. All of us ask what the Taoiseach and Ministers can do. All of us have influence with our colleagues in the US. We meet them when they come to our country and we travel to theirs. Certainly from my perspective, one of the most interesting engagements I had was not when I was in the US but in March or April, prior to the general election, when eight members of the US Congress were in Ireland. I was part of a delegation that met them in a formal capacity. One night our official engagements concluded at 9 p.m. when we met them in the ambassador's residence in the Phoenix Park. After that we met informally on our own time — eight members of the US Congress and my colleagues and I — and travelled down town to a local pub where we discussed informally this issue. At the informal discussion we showed the hardship we could not necessarily get across at formal meetings and explained individual cases of people who left this country, and that meant an awful lot more to the Congressmen. The reason I use that example is that opportunity is available to all of us. If we are to encourage the US Administration, the Senate and Congress, to look at our case favourably then all of us on all sides of the House, with our active engagements with members of the Senate and Congress, need to use that opportunity well. We need to influence them.

While we all appreciate there are a number of Senators and Congressmen who have associations and Irish backgrounds and who are sympathetic to what we are trying to achieve they need the support of other members of the Senate and Congress. It is important that Members on all sides of this House impress upon them the hardship that this is bringing to people of this country who emigrated many years ago when Ireland was a different economy and the circumstances they are now facing. We all have the opportunity to do this. While the primary focus resides with the Taoiseach and the Minister, and they have worked to their full capacity, I, in my capacity as an individual Member and my colleagues need to use our opportunities where we regularly meet, either here or abroad, members of the US Senate and Congress to impress upon them the importance of resolving this issue.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share time with Deputy Blaney.

Photo of Johnny BradyJohnny Brady (Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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I am delighted to support this agreed motion and congratulate the Fine Gael Party for using its time to highlight an issue of concern to countless families throughout the country because their offspring, undocumented in the US, are unable to come home for family reasons and are vulnerable to exploitation.

For 20 years the undocumented Irish have been a major issue with successive Irish Governments and every party in this House. The problem reflects the wave of emigration in the second half of the 1980s and for much of the 1990s in an era of still high unemployment. There was also the attraction of the US as a land of opportunity. There has been a major combined effort on both sides of the Atlantic involving the White House, our friends in Congress, Irish lobby groups, one of the most prominent members of which is led by Niall O'Dowd, a brother of a Fine Gael Front Bench spokesperson, and emigrant groups who have received some funding from the Government.

I am confident that no stone is being left unturned. About 16 years ago we achieved with the help of friends in Congress, the Morrison visas, and in more recent times with the McCain and Kennedy proposals we came very close to a solution. Unfortunately it was not brought to fruition. We have very close links with America which I will not go over again and, of course, the US economy is dependent on the 11 million or so undocumented, not just Irish, but of every nationality. The obstacles are internal political obstacles. Obviously the attacks on 11 September 2001 made the whole situation immensely more difficult. There is also the issue of possible discrimination between nationalities. Nonetheless there has been an exploration of bilateral options not open to that interpretation. Perhaps with the forthcoming election it will be possible to get commitments for afterwards. Our own experience should help inform us of some of the difficulties, even though our position is not the same.

We are not looking for a favour but the young Irish have a great deal to contribute to the American economy and society and, indeed, Ireland is part of the make-up of America. It is not satisfactory to have a legal position which is uncertain and unenforceable. Looking to the longer term it may seem Utopian but it would be great if the EU and the US could develop a common travel area along with free trade investment and other forms of free movement.

I thank Deputy Mansergh for sharing time. It is with much contentment that I stand here with the Government having commended this motion to the House. I do not believe there is a single Deputy in the House who does not have a constituent with family members living illegally in the US. Therefore, it is fitting that this motion should be passed by all parties in an attempt to unite the Irish Government's efforts and try to bring about immigration reform in the US.

It is estimated that there are approximately 25,000 undocumented Irish in the US. We are all aware of the hardship they face on a daily basis in addition to the difficulties faced by them by not being able to return home for holidays or to see sick relatives or attend weddings or funerals. This is the type of travel most of us take for granted.

This Government has been hugely committed to bringing about immigration reform in the US for the undocumented Irish. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, has been a frequent visitor to Washington, having travelled there almost 20 times during the past three years in an effort to help bring about a resolution to this matter. While in the past mass emigration to the US was experienced due to hardship in this country, leaving families lonely and communities shattered, we are living in a much more prosperous economy. I was looking at statistics today and note that the Government has allocated €15 million this year for immigration services abroad. That is welcome.

The Taoiseach has brought this issue to the fore during his recent trips to Washington for St. Patrick's Day celebrations in recent years.

While the Irish Government does not have a direct input into US legislation, collectively we have been pressing on those who have a direct input to do what is right for the undocumented Irish. All agree that immigration is a huge problem for the US. The number of undocumented Irish make up a very small fraction of the total number of illegal immigrants in that country. The Irish Government has voiced its backing for the proposal made by Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain, with which all Members are familiar. This proposal would have provided a key opportunity for the undocumented Irish in the US to legalise their status and secure a path to permanent residency. However, it now looks unlikely that the immigration reform Bill will be passed and I do not envisage any movement on the issue until after the 2008 US presidential election. This does not mean that the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, will not press for immigration reform in the meantime. Last month, he travelled to the US and met many from the political hierarchy to discuss the issue and I believe some progress was made.

Like other speakers, I also pay tribute to the undocumented Irish in the US who have not given up on the fight for immigration reform. The Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform has brought the Irish community in the US together and has ensured the matter remains at the top of everybody's agenda for which it must be commended. I am delighted to speak on this cross-party effort to highlight this important issue. I am glad that politics is not being played with the issue, which affects all of us one way or another. I hope that in the type of publicity arising from a motion like this one the media do not give people false hope. While we all have good wishes and intentions here, we do not want to give false hope to people out there.

Photo of Paul Connaughton  SnrPaul Connaughton Snr (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Ring for tabling this motion. While there should have been no need for Fine Gael to do this, I am pleased the Government has seen fit to accept the simple thrust of our proposals. However, from what I have heard tonight, it does not seem to have any great enthusiasm for them. The Government should have been proactive on issues relating to our undocumented citizens in the United States who are trapped in a no-win situation in no-man's land. We all remember October 2005 when this House unanimously agreed to back the Kennedy-McCain proposals to introduce a new immigration policy for the US to take in all immigrants irrespective of their origin.

We in Fine Gael did everything to help our immigrants on this issue. Along with Deputies Ring, McGinley and Coveney, I met scores of members of the US Congress. We walked and addressed rallies of several thousand Irish men and women, many of whom had travelled all night across the United States to be in Washington for those rallies. A feature of those events was the number of participants from Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, the US Congress is not yet able to come up with a solution agreeable to either the Democrats or Republicans that would provide an opportunity for the undocumented to be allowed out of the darkness, to have the fear of expulsion from the US removed and above all else to put in place a system to allow Irish citizens to come and go to see their families in Ireland as they so wish, which I would have thought is a basic human right. However, the upcoming US presidential election is now taking a grip on US politics and it is unlikely that the immigration Bill will feature before this great event.

Having been in America four times on this issue in the past two years, I recognise an alternative solution that would benefit most of the undocumented Irish in the United States. A bilateral agreement between the US Government and ours based on the same lines as the Australia-US model would create great opportunities for our people in the US to overcome the difficulties to which I have alluded. On the other side of the coin, many American citizens in Ireland tell me that our immigration policy is very cumbersome for them here. Given the significant US investment in Ireland, a large number of American citizens living in Ireland would welcome such a development.

There is also an all-Ireland dimension. The peace treaty should surely be enhanced by a joint approach by the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to give Irish people North and South an opportunity to live normal lives in the US. Why is this not happening? I see the Minister of State shaking his head. He is like a man who does not believe what we are at either. We are doing it for the best interests and on behalf of our people in Washington at the moment. People like Niall O'Dowd, Ciaran Staunton, Grant Lally and a host of powerful Irish-Americans have spent their time and money trying to help our citizens in America. This is what they want. The Taoiseach has been over there many times. Why does he never take up this issue? He never put the matter to Senator Kennedy or any of the powerful Irish-American senators. Why does he not do so?

Photo of Michael AhernMichael Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Cork East, Fianna Fail)
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I ask the Deputy to withdraw that allegation.

Photo of Paul Connaughton  SnrPaul Connaughton Snr (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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That is the question the Irish-Americans are asking. Regardless how the Government conceal it, it appears it does not have the stomach for it and we do not know why.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Ring for tabling this important motion. It is nice to see that the Government has seen fit to back a second Fine Gael Private Members' motion since the summer recess. I am not from the west but from the south east. There are not many Wexford people who are undocumented in America. While it affects quite a few families in Wexford, it would not affect as many as in Mayo, Galway or other parts of the west of Ireland. It is very sad to listen to the stories of some of these people who have not been home for years. Many of them are involved in construction in America. Since the events of 11 September 2001, it has been even harder for them to survive in America given the tightening of laws on bank accounts, driving licences, etc. It is sad that many Irish people over there are on the breadline as a result. They do not need to be struggling.

Deputy Connaughton mentioned that the Taoiseach could come forward and press the matter home more forcefully, something he has failed to do in his ten years as Taoiseach. The Taoiseach should seek a commitment from each of the US presidential candidates to ascertain where they stand on the issue. If the Government had some form of commitment from whoever is elected President, he or she would be required to honour it. Given the number of Irish-American voters, such a commitment would help bring a candidate over the line in the presidential election. I call on the Government to carry that out.

In the past two years, the Australians have reached an agreement with the Americans. I feel a similar deal can be done for the Irish in America to allow them come home to the island of Ireland to their family and friends. Other speakers have outlined how they are unable to come home for funerals and family weddings. Many of them have not seen their parents in years. I would not like to be an Irishman in America unable to come home to see my family and friends. I call on the Minister of State to let the Taoiseach know of the strong statements from the Fine Gael side of the House. He can do something that he has failed to do in recent years.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to be able to speak on this issue and I am glad we have agreement on the motion. Many people in the United States are watching this debate at the moment on the Internet, listening to what we have to say and hoping we have something to say that will help in finding a solution to the problem. They do not want the kind of crocodile tears we have seen shed by many speakers. They have heard it all before. What people want from legislators and political leaders in Ireland are solutions. The goalposts have changed on this issue. Until a number of years ago we were trying to assist in the process of making the Irish case in the context of an overreaching immigration reform package led by Senators McCain and Kennedy. We wanted to support that process and use our Irish connections to make that happen because that would have provided an avenue for many Irish citizens to secure citizenship in the US, which they wanted an opportunity to secure. However, that opportunity is no longer available. The comprehensive reform package for immigration has been put on ice and it will not be examined or redrafted for some time. It is in that context that, as a Government and a Parliament, we need to find solutions for our people who look to us for leadership on this issue.

Only one person in this Parliament has the clout in Washington to make something happen on this issue. Delegations of backbench Members, junior Ministers and Members such as myself and Deputy Connaugton will travel to America, understand the issues and lobby for progress but that is the not the same as sending the Taoiseach, the leader of the country, to the US with a single mission to put together a resolution to this issue with key opinion formers and decision makers in the House of Representatives and Senate. November is the key month in Washington, as appropriation Bills are taken and Senators can do deals to secure add-ons to such Bills to make things happen. That is how the Australian deal was done but it was only done after the Australian Prime Minister travelled to Capitol Hill and found a champion to push the Australian cause on the issue. The Minster of State, Deputy Killeen, is correct that an Australian solution would not solve all our problems but the way in which it was achieved is the template for a resolution for undocumented Irish citizens in the US.

While I am pleased the House has agreed this motion, I am not pleased about what is happening in finding a resolution to this issue. We need to go to the US and our champion, who is probably Senator Kennedy, needs to be approached from the highest levels. The Taoiseach, rather than the Minister for Foreign Affairs, needs to travel and perhaps take Ian Paisley with him to seek a solution because 50% of the undocumented Irish in the US are from Northern Ireland. This issue must be put in the context of securing the peace process on this island by uniting communities on the other side of the Atlantic who set up there because of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. What a powerful message it would send to Washington if Ian Paisley and Bertie Ahern were to march into Senators' offices side by side on Capitol Hill seeking their help and asking them to be a champion for the Irish cause on this issue and to use appropriation Bills in November to achieve a solution. That is what is required. I hoped the Taoiseach would be present to make a contribution to this debate but, unfortunately, he is not even here to listen.

Photo of John O'MahonyJohn O'Mahony (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and to support the Fine Gael motion to regularise the plight of thousands of illegal Irish in the US. I congratulate my constituency colleague, Deputy Ring, on tabling the motion and on his continued efforts to resolve this ongoing problem, which has worsened since September 2001. I welcome the fact that the Government has agreed to support the motion. Many issues divide us in the House but it is right and fitting that we all unite in an effort to remove the fear among Irish people in the US and to regularise their status.

Fine Gael has always been committed to helping the undocumented Irish in the US. These are our people and they want to be given an opportunity to live without constant fear of deportation. Many of them left our shores before the Celtic tiger arrived. They did not leave by choice, as they sought employment they could not find at home. Others left Northern Ireland because of the Troubles. They have not been a burden on the US because they have worked hard and contributed to the economy and paid their taxes. The Irish community has a long and proud history and tradition of living and working in the US and it continues to contribute to the economic, cultural and social life of the county. Irish people do not want to be illegal. They have tried over the years to regularise their status and have applied for visas but have failed to secure them.

However, they have not forgotten their Irish roots and traditions and they deserve the opportunity to travel freely without the fear of deportation every time they approach a border. They deserve the chance to travel back and forth to the country of their birth. All of us have seen and heard at first hand the sad stories of people who were unable to come home for family funerals and weddings. We have witnessed the pain on the faces of parents who were too feeble or poor to visit their children and grandchildren in the US because they could not visit them at Christmas or holiday time in Ireland. I have met many illegal Irish at various times on visits to Gaelic Park in New York with football teams. The Irish people who visit Gaelic Park and various other venues throughout America congregate there because it is the only way they can get a taste of home. The hopes of our fellow Irish in the US have had many false dawns over the years. Following the collapse of comprehensive immigration reform earlier this year, it is an opportune time to bring forward a proposal for bilateral agreement.

I strongly agree with Deputy Coveney regarding John Howard, the Australian President, who landed in Washington to sort out the problem for illegal Australians. We need bold leadership. It is one thing for the Government to agree to our motion but it is another to find a solution. The Taoiseach and Ian Paisley need to travel to America to sort out this issue. It would show the Americans how far we have come in this country and it would help to solve the problem.

8:00 pm

Photo of John DeasyJohn Deasy (Waterford, Fine Gael)
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I commend my colleague, Deputy Ring, on tabling the motion. He has raised this issue for years and has been very consistent on it. Only a few short years ago, there was a debate about whether this was an important enough issue but that has been conclusively answered. It is an enormous issue for Irish communities in the US and it does not matter how many are involved. There are enough involved for us to take the issue extremely seriously. The question is how seriously are the Government parties taking it. They have been active on it but they have been unsuccessful, although that is not entirely their own fault. This is a complex problem, which depends a great deal on the consequences and outcomes for people of other nationalities. It involves issues that the Government, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Irish ambassador to the US in Washington and his staff cannot control.

However, a key calculation and determination needs to be made in this regard. Does the State leave the issue to chance or does it launch an effective lobbying effort to bring about legislative change for the illegal Irish? That means more than the odd meeting or the odd delegation to Washington or visits on St. Patrick's Day. Such an effort should constitute regular contacts between members of the US Senate and House of Representatives and a small number of Oireachtas Members with a specific task to lobby over a number of years. A plan that involves Members of both sides meeting a long-term target is needed, otherwise we are wasting our time. The bilateral arrangement will not resolve this issue and I differ from my colleagues on this. This is not only about the Taoiseach, it is also about Members having face time with the right people on the appropriate committees of the Senate and House of Representatives over a few years, if necessary. That is the only way to find a conclusive solution to this problem. Even then, the task will be extremely difficult but the Government needs to make that decision. A comprehensive lobbying effort involving Deputies from both sides of the House might have some chance, but it needs to be focused and bipartisan.

Photo of Terence FlanaganTerence Flanagan (Dublin North East, Fine Gael)
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I congratulate Deputy Michael Ring on tabling this motion about the undocumented Irish in America and I thank him for his hard work on the issue to date. I also congratulate the Fianna Fáil-led Government and the Minister on deciding to support our motion, which makes sense.

It is estimated there are more than 50,000 undocumented Irish living in the United States, which makes this a substantive issue that requires urgent Government attention. The 50,000 undocumented Irish are people who have set up home and have deep roots in the United States, raising children and contributing to their communities. I have heard many sad stories through my constituents about their families, sons and daughters in America. These are stories about loneliness and isolation, where siblings cannot return to Ireland for weddings, funerals or for Christmas because of the fear of not regaining entry to the United States. This is not right and it needs to be changed immediately.

I am disappointed that previous attempts to raise this issue have been unsuccessful, particularly the draft Bill on immigration reform, which was the topic of debate in the US Senate earlier this year. It looked very promising, but sadly has not been passed. This would not be the first time that special arrangements were put in place for the Irish in America. In the past we had the Morrison and Donnelly visas. A bilateral agreement between Ireland and America would see the introduction of a new renewable non-immigrant system, which would make it easier for Irish citizens to work in the US. In return, the Government would allow more Americans to work in Ireland and commit itself to a culture of compliance.

It was suggested that the agreement could form part of an overall package, tying in the peace process in the North, given the substantial number of emigrants from the Six Counties who are now illegal in America. I call this evening on the Taoiseach and the Minister to launch a high profile campaign which will enable them to redouble their efforts to ensure pressure is put on the American President to sign a bilateral agreement with Ireland. With St. Patrick's Day not too far away, we should aim to have this bilateral agreement signed by then. I hope this will happen and that we shall see a smiling Taoiseach and a smiling First Minister in the North, Dr. Ian Paisley, sign the agreement with President George Bush. I thank all those Republican and Democratic senators as well as Mr. Niall O'Dowd for the great work they have done in America. I ask all parties involved to work harder on behalf of the undocumented Irish to help them secure visas to regularise their positions in America.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I congratulate Deputy Ring on raising this matter and I acknowledge the support of the Minister for Foreign Affairs for this important issue. I welcome the fact that it has been identified as an area for potential all-Ireland co-operation, deserving inputs from the Government of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive.

Since the defeat of the McCain-Kennedy Bill on immigration reform, it has been clear that a bilateral agreement between the United States and Ireland is the only way forward in our efforts to resolve this issue and to set the tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants of Irish nationality on the road to legal status. It has been suggested that the bilateral agreement could follow the Australian E3 visa model. However, it is worth noting that this arrangement was moreor less related to free trade arrangementsbetween the United States and Australia, something that is not an option for Ireland as a party to the European Single Market. It also involved free trade in agriculture with the United States, which again is something to which we could not agree.

I do not see why a bilateral agreement of a similar or modified form, perhaps, could not be achieved. As Deputy Flanagan indicated, noting the Morrison and Donnelly visas, it certainly would not be the first time that special arrangements were put in place for Ireland. I echo and reiterate the calls by my party colleagues for a co-ordinated Government campaign at the highest level to secure a bilateral agreement, including, if necessary, the direct involvement of the Taoiseach. I also echo Deputy Deasy's suggestion that this should be done at a bipartisan interparliamentary level.

It is fair to say that nobody here is suggesting an amnesty. In most cases the undocumented Irish initially had legal status, arriving in the United States on temporary or student visas, but subsequently violating the terms of those visas and becoming illegal. What we are suggesting is a process to put them on the road to legality, not an amnesty as such. It is also important tonight to remember that Ireland has become a country of immigration, having known net emigration for years. More than 10% of the population are non-Irish citizens — the figure is more than 22% in my constituency. Most of these immigrants are EU citizens who benefit from the Four Freedoms. Many are asylum seekers, refugees, work permit and work visa holders, but a small number have come to Ireland from outside the EU on work permits or working visas which have expired and hence these have become illegal immigrants, or rather undocumented, as we would call them if they were Irish living in New York rather than Moldovan living in Cork.

If we are asking the United States to show leniency in dealing with the undocumented Irish in America, surely we should be prepared to show greater leniency in dealing with foreign nationals in good standing and with good character who have become undocumented in Ireland. Perhaps that issue might be approached on the same bipartisan basis as this motion.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this cross-party motion. In particular, I thank my colleague, Deputy Michael Ring, for tabling it. As the instigator of this important initiative, he has the gratitude not only of the Members of this House but of the thousands of undocumented Irish in the United States and indeed their families here at home.

I have raised this issue on many occasions over the past five years, most recently in June when I tabled a question on the measures to be taken in the light of the Senate reforms. In reply, the Minister for Foreign Affairs said that only a bipartisan solution could succeed in reforming the US immigration system. I truly believe that the bipartisan approach taken yesterday in this House is the key opening move on the road to success for our citizens in the US whose well-being is in all our hands. For the 50,000 of undocumented Irish living in the US success in this regard is needed for their sakes sooner rather than later. The statistics for the past couple of years are worrying, with a small but significant decrease in the number of green cards Ireland received in 2006 — 1,906 as opposed to 2,083 in 2005, and 54 lottery visas as opposed to 76 in 2005.

America has a long history of welcoming immigrants of all types, sometimes even illegal and undocumented persons. This welcoming philosophy is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in the immortal words which invite the world to "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses learning to breathe free." American immigration has the appearance of being fair and reasonable and indeed is highly regulated on paper, but the reality, as many Irish emigrants know to their cost, is very different. A climate exists whereby immigrants are forced to go underground. This is something we need to address and, like the other speakers on this side of the House, I hope that the Taoiseach will get off his butt and go to the US to deal with this issue.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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The fact that 21 Fine Gael Deputies will have spoken on this motion by the time it is finished this evening speaks volumes for the commitment our party has to this major issue. The fact that the Government has accepted the motion shows there is unanimity in the House on this issue.

The only thing we know for certain is that there is an enforcement Bill in the US Congress that will demonise and criminalise any person, in this case an Irish person, who knowingly helps in any way an illegal immigrant. That is the only prospect with which we are faced on Capitol Hill. All the leaders in the immigration movement in the US are calling on the Taoiseach to go to Washington. He should take with him the Opposition leaders. It has been stated that Dr. Ian Paisley should go, but it is important that Deputies Kenny, Gilmore and Ó Caoláin, the leaders of the Opposition parties in this House, also accompany him.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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On behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, I welcome the consensus on this motion. I have been a Member since 1981 and it is not very often that there is such consensus. It is a fair indication of the cross-party concern. Last night and tonight we recognised the difficult circumstances faced every day by the undocumented Irish from every county, in the United States. There is consensus that we want the US authorities to respond to the plight of those concerned and recognise the contribution they make to American life and the economy. To do so would be in everyone's interest, particularly the undocumented. A way to achieve this must be found and we can all contribute in this regard.

Speakers from all parties have recognised the changed immigration policy in the United States which reflects the security-centred climate that exists since the events of 11 September 2001. The unfortunate reality is that immigration reform is now a very sensitive political issue in the United States and the presidential and congressional elections are approaching. Yesterday in the US Senate in Washington, a proposal to introduce temporary visas for essential farm workers in agricultural states, such as California, where there is strong demand for workers to bring in the crops, was withdrawn because of a lack of support. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act 2007, which offers a path to permanent residence for young people brought to the United States before they were 16 years, was also rejected in the Senate. There is no doubt about the present level of opposition to any general amnesty for those who do not have legal approval to live and work in the United States.

An opinion poll in the conservative newspaper The Washington Times indicated yesterday that 77% of those questioned opposed the proposal to grant driving licences to undocumented Irish. Several speakers have drawn attention to the US-Australia bilateral arrangement as a template for us to follow in resolving this problem. The arrangements between the United States and Australia permit up to 10,500 Australians with third level qualifications to work in the United States on special E3 visas. Last year, only 1,400 Australians availed of this scheme which is not reciprocal and is not open to undocumented Australians in the United States. However, there are aspects of the E3 visa arrangement that could be very attractive to the Irish. The Minister for Foreign Affairs is examining this closely.

The Government is examining access to the United States for Irish people so they can contribute to the US economy and gain valuable experience in a legally compliant arrangement. This will not be achieved easily but it is worth great effort, and it behoves us all to work together to ensure we can resolve this issue.

I refute any criticism of the Taoiseach who raises this issue at every opportunity.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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He did not raise it with the key person.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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He has raised it with the President, many Senators and Congressmen to try to overcome the difficulties that too many Irish citizens are experiencing. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, who has made 20 visits to the United States to address this issue, has been instructed to draw attention to Irish concerns, as have all Ministers and Ministers of State. We have done so regularly and I have done so on several occasions and will continue to do so until the problem is resolved satisfactorily.

The consensus that this is an all-Ireland problem that deeply affects the North and the Border counties, including Donegal, is correct. The upcoming tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement next spring offers an opportunity to address the movement of people between the United States and Ireland in an all-island context. Such movement has benefited all the people of the United States over many years.

The Government would prefer to see the US Government adopt comprehensive emigration reform, as would Deputies Higgins, Ferris and others, but this must take full account of the advice of our well-placed friends in both Houses in the United States. The political prospects for reform are not there at present. We all know many clergy in the United States, including Fr. Brendan McBride, with whom Deputy Deenihan and I work, and we will continue to work together to try to achieve a resolution to this most serious issue.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Is rún an-tábhachtach é an rún seo agus molaim an obair atá déanta ag an Teachta Michael Ring, go h-áirithe, chun é a chur faoi bhráid na Dála. Molaim freisin an comhoibriú idir sinne agus an Rialtas. Mar a deir an seanfhocal, ní neart go cur le chéile. Tá muid sa Teach ag comhoibriú ar son an méid de mhuintir na hÉireann atá ag obair agus a bhfuil cónaí orthu i Meiriceá. Tá mo dheartháir agus daoine eile ó mo chlann ag obair go dleathach i Mheiriceá agus dá bhrí sin tá eolas pearsanta agam ar an scéal agus a fhios agam go bhfuil mórán daoine ann nach bhfuil stádas dleathach acu. Is ar an tír agus an Rialtas seo a bheidh an milleán muna mbíonn comhoibriú eadrainn. Caithfimid brú a chur ar Mheiriceánaigh, go mór mór daoine a bhfuil cáirdiúil linn.

Ní rud maith é go mbeadh an tAire Gnóthaí Eachtracha ag déanamh raice, agus é ar a shlí go dtí na Stáit Bhalcánacha, toisc gur labhair an Teachta Enda Kenny ar an ábhar. Dúirt an tAire Stáit go raibh an tAire Gnóthaí Eachtracha i Mheiriceá thart ar 20 uair. Tá sé in am dó dul arís, agus an Taoiseach ina theannta, chun an beart a dhéanamh don Rialtas. Ba chóir go mbeadh na státseirbhísigh a bhfuil againn i Mheiriceá ag obair ar an fhadhb seo chomh maith.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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Déarfainn go bhfuil siad dáiríre faoi seo.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Mar a dúirt mé, níl aon mhaith ann má bhíonn an tAire ag gearán ar raidió Éireann agus é ar a shlí go dtí na Stáit Bhalcánacha faoi céard atá á dhéanamh ag an Teachta Enda Kenny agus Fine Gael. Caithfimid oibriú le chéile agus an beart a dhéanamh. Tá sin ag tarlú anois, ach murach an rún seo, ní tharlódh sé.

Tá sé an-tábhachtach go leanfaidh an ceangal pearsanta idir an Taoiseach agus Senator Kennedy, agus daoine eile mór le rá i gcúrsaí polaitiúla Mheiriceá, ar aghaidh. Is teagmháil dhaingean í sin le blianta fada anuas agus is cóir í a neartú chun réiteach a fháil ar an scéal agus comhoibriú idir Mheiriceánaigh agus Éireannaigh a chur chun cinn. Is cosúil, ón scéal atá faighte againn ó Mheiriceá nach bhfuil an teagmháil sin maith go leor go fóill. Caithfimid féachaint chuige go mbeidh ceangal maith eadrainn agus go leanfaidh sé ar aghaidh go dtí go mbeidh toradh maith againn agus go mbeidh na hÉireannaigh atá thall in Nua Eabhrac, go háirithe, a bhfuil aithne pearsanta againn orthu, in ann teacht abhaile chun bualadh lena cairde agus a clanna, go háirithe ag am Nollag.

Aontaím leis an méid a dúirt an Teachta Varadkar níos luaithe, go bhfuil daoine in Éirinn sa chruachás céanna leis na daoine mídleathacha i Mheiriceá. Ba chóir go ndéanfadh muid beart ar a shon. Is rud maith é go bhfuil sé ráite os ard anois go gcaithfimid oibriú ar a shon freisin.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I congratulate Deputy Ring on raising this issue and thank the Government for accepting the motion. There have been many debates in the Dáil and Seanad on the undocumented Irish in the United States and so much has been written thereon. When I was out there about a year and a half ago, I met some of these young men and women who could not come home for funerals. It is a serious situation. Many parents have contacted me to ask what they can do about it. We have spent about two or three years trying to deal with this issue. I accept the Government has done its best in this situation.

However, there are issues regarding the Kennedy-McCain proposals. When they failed, it was a kick in the teeth for us. Unfortunately, it increased the pain of the undocumented Irish. I propose that we come up with two solutions that may help the undocumented Irish. There are between 25,000 and 50,000 undocumented Irish in the US. Many years ago when we had the green card system, certain people in Ireland applied for that lottery system who had no intention of going to the US and who took up very important places. We must be united on this. If people have green cards and are not using them, maybe we could come up with some facility whereby those green cards could go to the people at the coal face who could use them and possibly come back.

I met an American citizen in my office last week who wanted to become an Irish citizen but did not have an Irish grandmother or grandfather. Perhaps we have enough people like that to introduce a reciprocal arrangement with the US which would sort it out. We can talk until the cows come home and so much hot air has been blown that we could fly the 50,000 home. These are two proposals which could be introduced. It is bartering but it could be done and reach people at the coal face. We are talking about 25,000 to 50,000 people, between 5,000 and 10,000 of whom are in serious situations. Maybe we could deal with them immediately. I ask the Minister to take these proposals to the Government because we can sit around and wait for the House of Representatives and the Senate to agree. It may never happen. Under these proposals, we hope we can have a reciprocal arrangement. It is a matter of quid pro quo or "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" and can help us save the undocumented Irish.

Deputies:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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One issue I wish to emphasise is the issue of bereaved families who face real difficulty in repatriating relatives who have been seriously injured abroad or the bodies of relatives who have died abroad, be they documented or undocumented. I would like the Department of Foreign Affairs to establish a dedicated unit to deal with this issue. This has become an increasingly difficult problem given the increased numbers of people travelling over the past number of years. I have had some experience of it myself and I ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to take this message out of here tonight.

I commend my colleague, Deputy Ring, on tabling this motion. It is not today or yesterday that he and his colleagues, Deputies Connaughton and McGinley, highlighted this issue. The importance that Fine Gael places on this issue is evidenced by the fact that we took time out on Private Members' business to put it forward. While the fact that the Government has taken the motion on board is a welcome development, it is regrettable that for a long period of time, this Government was happy to leave it to the Americans to do the work for us while we did nothing. Now we must do something.

We must realise that Irish people will always go to the US, irrespective of the economic conditions here. We have a unique relationship with the Americans and we must build on this to ensure that Irish people out there can get documented in a correct manner. We must also recognise the difficulty faced by the US authorities and that it is unpopular for their politicians to go down this road at the moment. We must emphasise the unique selling points we have, while recognising that the US authorities have extreme difficulties, particularly with their southern borders and the amount of illegal immigrants who enter the country.

In view of the fact that we have been subject to immigration in recent times, it behoves us as a nation to look into our own hearts and examine how we deal with people in a similar position in this country.

Photo of John O'DonoghueJohn O'Donoghue (Ceann Comhairle; Kerry South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Timmins has one minute left.

Photo of Billy TimminsBilly Timmins (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Ring has afforded me a minute or two out of the kindness of his heart. I met a young Brazilian girl whose father was murdered in central Brazil. The back up we have for such people in this country is lamentable and regrettable. This girl was really lost and alone. She was several thousand miles from home and was virtually penniless, scraping together a few bob cleaning kitchen floors. We must look at how we treat such people in this country, in addition to ensuring that our people abroad are well looked after.

The local has become the global in recent times and many people have reidentified their Irish roots. In addition to looking at the US situation, I would like the Minister to look at others areas with Irish diasporas. I am thinking in particular of Irish people in countries like Argentina in South America, which I have mentioned here during the passports debate. We must take a proactive role in identifying where those people are and seeking to put in place bilateral agreements with the relevant countries so that we can facilitate interchange between our countries.

It is important to realise that particularly in England and to a lesser extent in the US there are small Irish enclaves beyond which Irish people did not move due to the critical mass they had in times past. With people aging and passing on, these people have become isolated and we have seen from clips from various television programmes how that isolation impacts on people. I want to see more funding and a more proactive approach from this Government in assisting the people out there. I commend my colleague, Deputy Ring, and thank him for affording me those additional minutes.

Deputies:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I again compliment the Government on taking this motion as a joint motion, which I was delighted to table. I thank my colleagues from all sides of the House who spoke. Everybody is sincere about this. I ask the Minister tonight to do one job. There are thousands of Irish illegals watching us in every part of the US tonight who are trapped in a situation they want to get out of.

These are Irish citizens and we can never forget about Irish citizens. I said here last night that the Americans preach and always say that they will look after their citizens no matter what part of the world they are in. Likewise, we must look after our citizens, no matter what part of the world they are in.

Deputies:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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The recent census in the US revealed that 36 million people claimed to be Irish-American. I was surprised by what the Minister of State said tonight to the effect that there would be people in the US who would not want our Irish illegals to get driving licences. There is goodwill out there. When Deputies Coveney, Connaughton and McGinley visited the US, the one thing that came across loud and clear from US politicians was that they did not believe there was a problem with Irish illegals in the US. That is why we need the Taoiseach; the Tánaiste; Ian Paisley, MLA; Martin McGuinness, MLA; and the leaders of the Opposition in this House to go to the US and lobby for our Irish illegals.

I say to the families here tonight and the people watching us in the US that this will not be easy. However, it will not work if the Taoiseach does not go because this is a political issue and such issues must be resolved by politicians, such as the Taoiseach and the US President. In a few weeks time, Hillary Clinton will visit Dublin for a fund raiser. Every other candidate in the forthcoming US presidential election will tell us about his or her Irish ancestors. I say to the US candidates that we are worried about our Irish illegals and we want them to be sorted out once and for all in the US where the Irish built the roads and railways but where they cannot even drive on the roads because the Americans will not give them driving licences. I say to the US ambassador and the US Government that we want our people legalised. I do not want to see these people back in the Dáil or outside the gates. I want to see them outside here or coming back into the Dáil with their sons and daughters and their American grandchildren who they can bring in and out of this country freely because it is the US in which they wish to live and where they have their homes and families. However, they are Irish and we should never forget that. We want to get them looked after and I call on the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs to immediately take that Government jet, go over to the US next weekend, go to Congress and lobby Irish-American politicians to try to get a deal for our Irish citizens who would love to be here. Many of them cannot be here because they left Ireland when there was no work. Many of them could be here but want to be in America with their family and loved ones. This must be resolved by politicians. I call on the Taoiseach to travel to America to try to resolve this matter.

Question put and agreed to.