Thursday, 17 December 2015
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Undocumented Irish in the USA
4. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the status of the proposed immigration reform legislation in the United States of America; if any further discussions are planned with the authorities there, given the ongoing concern of many Irish emigrant representative organisations, the difficulties facing the undocumented Irish and the concerns of their families at home; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45607/15]
In November 2014, we welcomed the administrative measures announced by President Obama, which could have benefited thousands of undocumented Irish emigrants based in the United States. Unfortunately those measures now face a legal challenge in the US federal court. Can the Minister inform the House, from his contacts in the United States, if there is any prospect of progress in the area of immigration reform, be it through executive action by President Obama or through legislation in the US Congress? What is the most up-to-date estimated number of undocumented Irish emigrants in the United States from the figures available to his Department?
Achieving relief for undocumented Irish migrants in the US and agreement on a facility for future legal migration between Ireland and the US is a priority in the Government’s relationship with the United States. Our embassy in Washington and consulates elsewhere in the US are active in advocating immigration reform and the issue is also the subject of high level political contacts between Ireland and the US Government. Meetings such as those between the Taoiseach, President Obama and other senior political figures around St. Patrick’s Day have provided an important opportunity to reiterate our concerns regarding the undocumented Irish and to encourage progress on a comprehensive legislative package by the US Congress.
In July, the Taoiseach and I met with John Boehner, then Speaker of the House of Representatives, and a number of his congressional colleagues when they visited Dublin. More recently, in Washington at the end of September, I met key Democrat and Republican contacts on Capitol Hill, including Senator Patrick Leahy, Congressmen Joseph Kennedy III, Paul Ryan, James Sensenbrenner, Richard Neal and other members of the Congressional Friends of Ireland group. In all of those meetings I stressed the importance we attach to immigration reform, as I did when meeting leaders of the Irish American community later that week in New York. I will take the opportunity to raise these points again when I visit New York in early January.
Following my meetings in September, a Bill was tabled by Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner in the US House of Representatives. The Bill is aimed at providing access to several thousand E3 visas for Irish citizens. I warmly welcome this positive step towards meeting the desire of many Irish people to live and work in the US for a time, but there is much work to be done in both Houses of Congress before this Bill might become law. I am also aware that while this measure would advance our objective of securing improved legal migration channels, it would not address the concerns of the many undocumented citizens currently in the US. These remain a key priority and continue to be the subject of ongoing contacts with the US authorities.
Our minds are probably more focused on this issue now than at other times of the year. Living without documentation can mean living in the shadows and in fear in a country which many consider their home. It also means that people might be unable to travel to Ireland to see friends and family. It can mean missing family occasions, be they celebratory occasions or occasions of bereavement. The Minister will know from his constituency as I do from mine, which unfortunately has a long history of emigration, that many families are torn apart because sons, daughters or siblings cannot return home.
Is there any hope of immigration reform being achieved? We spoke about the electoral cycle in Northern Ireland and an electoral cycle is in full swing in the United States at present, with the caucuses to start in the next few weeks. Has the Minister had any indication from the ambassador, or our representatives at official level, whether there is any hope of the legal challenge to President Obama's executive decision being finalised or the previous legislation, inaugurated in the House of Representatives and then the Senate, being moved forward?
The President's executive action is now the subject of court proceedings and I do not have a date on which this matter will be decided. I assure the Deputy that this is a matter of priority on the part of the Government. I intend visiting the United States in early January and I will raise this issue again. It is difficult to put precise figures on the exact number of undocumented Irish citizens in the US but we estimate there are many thousands. These individuals are living in something of a twilight zone, who are in breach of US immigration law and do not have the means of ensuring their status is regularised. They wish that the US Government would develop a mechanism to allow them to acquire a documented right to continue their lives in the US, to fully participate in the life of their adopted communities and to travel in and out of their country.
I am conscious of the difficulties being experienced by Irish citizens who are undocumented in the US and their families who remain in this jurisdiction. I am very much aware of the pain they feel when family members are unable to return for a family occasion, be it a celebration or a bereavement.
We need to keep the issue on the agenda and to assure the undocumented Irish, of whom all of us know and whose family members we know at home, that this is an issue that will continue to be treated with the utmost urgency, be it through political contacts or contacts at official level. There was a proposal to have visa waivers for the undocumented Irish, which focuses on permitting undocumented immigrants to travel back to Ireland without triggering the three-year or ten-year bars on returning to the United States. Is there any progress with regard to that proposal, apart from the overall immigration reform measure that would deal with all the undocumented?
I am aware of and have raised the matter of the waivers for three-year and ten-year travel bans in relation to US visa applications for Irish undocumented who have overstayed their visa in the United States. At my request, the Secretary General of my Department wrote to the US ambassador earlier this year requesting that he further explore the question of such waivers. The US Embassy indicated that the waiver system is applied strictly in accordance with US laws and regulations and is operated uniformly on an international basis, including Ireland. Such a waiver can be applied for in the case of a three-year or ten-year ban having been imposed for overstaying a visa in the United States of America.
I acknowledge the difficulties on the part of the many Irish undocumented. I assure the Deputy that this continues to be a priority and I intend raising the issue early in the new year. The Government continues to actively pursue all opportunities to advance immigration reform that would benefit our citizens. In the meantime, the Government provides significant financial support, in the order of €1.5 million in 2015, to assist the work of various Irish immigration centres across the US.