Seanad debates

Tuesday, 1 March 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Undocumented Irish in the USA

2:30 pm

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. The plight of undocumented Irish people living in America has been ongoing for many years. Many of them feel isolated and, indeed, forgotten.Many of them have been unable to come home for years. They have missed out on significant family events and milestones such as births, deaths and weddings. Their main fear is not about returning to Ireland but of not being allowed back into the USA, where many have worked for decades. The pandemic has added another barrier for parents wishing to travel to America to see their children. Many undocumented Irish people turned to immigration centres and NGOs in order to survive. Online communication through social media is no replacement for physical contact, especially with one's nearest and dearest. Fears of deportation limit the use of social services, access to the legal system and full integration into local communities.

It is important to note the contribution that undocumented Irish emigrants have made to the US economy. In many instances they pay their taxes and contribute to local organisations. They are builders, carpenters, manual labourers and they work in many different areas. They have helped to build America and continue to do so. In 1990 the Donnelly programme allowed over 10,000 people to avail of a visa to live and work in the USA in the first year after the Bill was enacted. From 1992 to 1994, 16,000 of 50,000 Morrison visas were set aside for Irish people each year. These programmes are evidence of what can be achieved. Unfortunately, however, those programmes were more than 30 years ago.

The issue of Irish emigration to the USA, particularly the status of undocumented Irish, has been a priority for successive Irish Governments. Emigration issues have been raised on an ongoing basis with the US Administration. Most recently in October 2021, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, said that the situation of undocumented Irish immigrants in the USA and working to secure legal pathways for Irish people wishing to live and work in the USA had been priority issues for successive Governments and continued to be key priorities for the current Government. I have spoken to many who ask what people can expect to see done differently on this issue. We now find ourselves with a unique opportunity because the current US Administration has a strong Irish-American influence and has control over the White House, Congress and the Senate. This presents a unique opportunity for Irish political representatives to develop a strategy to exert whatever influence they can on the US Administration to get this issue over the line once and for all.

It should be noted that Irish heritage is strong in America, with more than 31.5 million residents claiming Irish ancestry, which is almost one in ten people. The same talking points come up year after year but nothing seems to happen. There are no exact figures for the number of illegal Irish in the USA but estimates range from 10,000 to 15,000, although many would claim the number is much greater. As I said, with President Biden in the White House, who is very proud of his Irish ancestry and refers to it at every opportunity, we now have a unique opportunity to put this issue to bed for once and for all. I ask the Government to redouble its efforts and to avail of this unique opportunity so that those people who have been hiding while trying to find a solution to this issue for years will finally find one.


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