Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Topical Issue Debate
US Visas for Irish Emigrants
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this Topical Issue and the Minister of State, Deputy Creighton, for dealing with it. I wish to highlight the fact that so many young people are emigrating to various parts of the world. The USA is one such opportunity available to our people. US Senator Charles Schumer previously wrote legislation for the diversity visa programme while a member of the House of Representatives. He thus created the Schumer visa which was distributed to 50,000 people from countries with low rates of emigration to America. This bill is the first in 15 years - when the Morrisson and Donnelly visa lottery programmes were cut - that focuses exclusively on Irish emigration to America. There is not a town or village in our country that has not lost young people to emigration in recent years. They are going to Australia, Canada, the USA, England and elsewhere. I would like to see the Government working closely with the people in America who are trying to introduce these visas. For young people tavelling from Ireland to America, having a working visa, whereby they can work for two years or have that period extended, is of vital importance. It allows them to find bona fide work, be above board, have proper health cover and be covered if they have an accident or something unfortunate happens to them. It takes them out of the black economy and ensures them the freedom to avail of different employment opportunities that might arise. A person working illegally in the United States is restricted in what he or she can do.
I acknowledge the Taoiseach's recent trip to America which was good for the country. He portrayed the country in a good light and sent a good message to America, which is to be welcomed.
I have raised the issue of visas on previous occasions. I appreciate that a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has said the Government is working with Irish American community activists and the embassy and consulates in the United States to advance the prospects of the Bill. This is vitally important. I ask the Minister of State to ensure the Government operates in a proactive way on this issue. It would be most welcome if 10,500 visas, or possibly more, became available in time.
We do not want to see our young people having to go, but there is nothing worse than seeing young people between the ages of 18 and 22 years unemployed. They will never get these years back. It is vital that they use their time productively. As long as there is no work available here, we want to see them getting on. We want to see them safe and happy and in work. It is in everyone's instinct to work and be productive every day.
I am relying on the Minister of State to work with her counterparts in America to ensure this work can come to fruition in order that we can offer the hope to many young people that they will be able to work in a safe and secure environment and be above board.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, in addition to his parliamentary question on the subject today. I also thank him for his generous comments on the Taoiseach's recent visit to the United States.
Addressing the position of the undocumented Irish and reforming our migration arrangements with the United States remain important priorities for the Government in its relationship with the US Administration and Congress. Enabling Irish people to apply for E-3 temporary US work visas has been a particular focus of our efforts in our ongoing exchanges on immigration related issues. E-3 visas are two year renewable non-immigrant worker visas and currently available to Australian nationals in possession of a third level qualification. The proposals under discussion, if passed by Congress, would allow Irish nationals to apply annually for up to 10,500 E-3 visas which would be valid for two years and could be renewed. The eligibility criteria for these visas are the subject of detailed discussions in the US Congress. The benefits that would derive from E-3 visas could be expected to arise for future potential Irish emigrants to the United States rather than the undocumented Irish directly, although there may be scope for at least some in the latter category to apply for such visas. The Deputy can be assured that the Government, including the Irish Embassy in Washington, is extremely proactive in pursuit of this goal.
As Deputies will be aware, the Taoiseach is today returning from a series of St. Patrick's Day engagements in Washington, Chicago and New York. In addition to promoting our economic and business agenda, he discussed progress on the proposed E-3 visas during his high level meetings with the Administration and Congress.
The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste discussed immigration issues with President Obama when they met him on 23 May last year in Dublin and the Tánaiste also did so in separate exchanges during the course of 2011 with Secretary of State Clinton and Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
During the Tánaiste's recent visits to Washington DC and New York he reviewed progress on E-3 visa issues during further separate contacts with Deputy Secretary Bill Burns of the US State Department and also with Senators Leahy, Scott Brown and Charles Schumer and members of the Friends of Ireland group at House of Representatives level. He also discussed the issue in detail with the congressional delegation led by leader Ms Nancy Pelosi during its visit to Dublin on 12 March.
Senators Schumer, Leahy and Durbin, as well as Senators Brown and Kirk, previously tabled draft Bills which would enable the provision of E-3 visas for Irish applicants. Both Bills have since been referred for examination by the US Senate's Judiciary Committee. In all our exchanges with them the Government thanked the Senators for their ongoing efforts in this regard and encouraged them to persist towards reaching a positive outcome. They have also been assured of the Government's continuing close interest and support in this connection which we are exercising through the Irish Embassy in Washington. In turn, the Irish Embassy is working in tandem with key stakeholder groups from throughout the Irish-American community. During his visits to the United States in February the Taoiseach met representatives from several of these groups, including the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform and the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centres. He acknowledged and thanked all of them and others from within the Irish-American community for their vital help in rallying support for our collective efforts.
I am heartened by the advances made so far towards enabling Irish people to apply for E-3 visas. However, the Government is very conscious that the current US domestic political climate around immigration issues and the presidential elections taking place there later this year mean that passing any immigration related legislation will present very significant challenges.
I thank the Taoiseach for discussing the E-3 visa issue during his recent trip and the Tánaiste for his efforts during recent trips to Washington and New York when he also discussed this important matter. I am aware of the difficulties surrounding emigration to America, particularly at this time. It was always recognised by American politicians that Irish people went to America with one thing in mind, which was to work and be valuable contributors to American society. The generations who left our shores made, through their work, a valuable contribution to that society.
I hope political efforts will, eventually, bring the visa issue to a successful conclusion. I look forward to the Government supporting these efforts. Having listened to what the Minister of State said, the Government is being proactive and workmanlike in dealing with this important issue. There have been a couple of slips such as when it was suggested people were leaving the country because of a lifestyle choice. There is no such thing. People do not want to leave. However, if they believe they have to leave in order to seek work, better themselves, keep themselves busy and make a contribution, we should support them in every way possible. I thank the Government for its efforts in this regard.
I reiterate that the Government places importance on addressing the position of the undocumented Irish and reforming our migration arrangements with the United States. In addition to the ongoing political contacts on emigration reform, the E-3 visas in particular, the Government also provides considerable financial support for the invaluable Irish community and welfare organisations which do so much to improve the lives of the most vulnerable members of Irish communities in the United States. In 2012 alone €11.6 million will be provided for organisations and projects aimed at assisting Irish emigrants and communities abroad under the emigrant support programme. The benefits that would derive from the passage of E-3 visa legislation would enhance the flow of migrants between our two countries. They would also create positive momentum and bode well for possible further progress on other wider emigration issues, including those of direct concern to the undocumented Irish. I am very much aware of the difficulties confronting them and the distress that they and their families, in the United States and Ireland, experience as a result of the situation in which they find themselves.
I would urge anyone, however, who might be tempted to follow in the footsteps of the undocumented to take account of their plight and to refrain from seeking entry to the US for work purposes without having first acquired a relevant visa clearance.
I am grateful to the Deputy for his engagement on this issue. The House can be assured that the Government will continue to avail of every opportunity to pursue a successful conclusion to the debate in Congress on the E3 legislation and to find a solution for the undocumented.